WASHINGTON — House lawmakers heard strong calls to reauthorize the primary federal juvenile justice law during a hearing Thursday.
The Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act sets core protections for juveniles in the states and provides state grants. The law was last reauthorized in 2002.
Since then, the field has developed new evidence-based practices that need to be incorporated into the law, reform advocates told the House Education and Workforce Committee.
The committee “has an opportunity to improve upon an historical and strategic Act of Congress that has assisted states like mine to keep our communities safe and put youth on a better path,” said Steven C. Teske, chief judge of the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia.
Teske pointed to programs in Georgia that have reduced arrests, detention rates and lengths of stay for juveniles, which he said were seeded by JJDPA funding.
The Senate Judiciary Committee this summer approved a JJDPA reauthorization bill, but House lawmakers have yet to consider a similar measure. The full Senate could vote on the legislation as early as this fall.
Teske and Derek Cohen, deputy director at the the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both stressed the need to end detention for youth who commit status offenses, such as running away or missing curfew, by closing the valid court order exemption in any reauthorization.
Teske also recommended strengthening the provisions of the law that aim to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the system. In addition, he called for enhanced judicial training for judges so they can best apply federal requirements.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the committee, said JJDPA needs to be reauthorized to implement new policies, but also to ensure juvenile justice programs receive funding.
A House appropriations bill would zero out funding for several provisions under the law.
“We’re still likely to have the same problem year after year until we have a reauthorization of this program,” he said.
Scott, a long-time supporter of juvenile justice reform, said he hopes to work on a bipartisan bill that could reach the president’s desk before the end of this session of Congress.
Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., didn’t offer a timeline for action during the hearing.
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Four years ago, President Obama was inaugurated, and we expected that within a few months the President would nominate a permanent administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). But this past week, as President Obama renewed the oath of office, we are still waiting. Each administration since the office was created in 1974 has made the appointment except President Obama’s.
The President should end this delay and here's why:
The OJJDP is the leading federal agency responsible for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention issues. Created under the landmark Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974, the OJJDP plays a vital role in assisting state and local governments in addressing juvenile delinquency through federal grants, research and guidance. For nearly 40 years, the OJJDP has helped states to create and sustain effective approaches to reduce juvenile delinquency, and develop programs that are cost-effective, improve public safety and treat court-involved youth appropriately.
The OJJDP administrator articulates a national juvenile justice agenda that is based on research on what works and what doesn’t, as well as on adolescent development, and helps states use the research, and implement best practices in reforming their juvenile justice systems.
In particular, the administrator’s role is to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of the main federal piece of juvenile justice legislation, the JJDPA, which has provided critical federal funding to states to comply with a set of core requirements designed to protect children and meet their unique needs.
While successful, the JJDPA could be substantially strengthened to address more of the pressing needs in the juvenile justice field, such as reducing the overuse of incarceration, reducing racial and ethnic disparities and closing the loopholes that allow some status offenders to be detained and some youth to be placed in adult jails, despite the original intentions of the law.
Further, the administrator advocates for juvenile justice funding appropriations from Congress. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, federal juvenile justice funding has steadily declined -- down 83 percent from 1999 to 2010 -- and the appropriations caps contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011 have only accelerated the pace of cuts.
The JJDPA has been sorely underfunded, and has not been updated in more than a decade; it continues to languish. Neither the House nor the Senate has introduced reauthorization bills this past session, and the Obama administration has been surprisingly silent on the matter.
Given the importance of this appointment, why the delay?
It's not clear to this advocate.
There's been no shortage of good candidates willing to take on this job. The White House has received names and resumes on numerous occasions, and now that the Senate confirmation requirement has been removed the administration can make this appointment without approval from the Senate.
Juvenile justice stakeholders have made hundreds of calls, written letters and contacted key White House officials. Still, there has been no response.
Members of Congress have also asked about the delay, including some House members who wrote to the President.
And several news outlets have editorialized on this, including The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, whose editorial declares "It's well past time for Obama to name a leader for the office." The Washington Post editorial states, "A lengthy vacancy at the top in the federal office charged with combating juvenile delinquency and improving conditions of youth incarceration requires President Obama's swift attention."
No more delays Mr. President. It's been long enough. We need a juvenile justice expert and a leader as the nation's next OJJDP administrator. And we need one now.
This story produced by the Chicago Bureau.
The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers - the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides - some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation.
Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system.
Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).
So in saying she would lasso the needed parties to lessen the numbers entering the corrections populations, and continuing the pitch to rid Cook of the juvenile system as currently set up, Preckwinkle made news. The numbers, so often repeated, were underscored in her talk: “The last time I checked,” she said, “68 percent of the people in our jail were African American - or double their proportion in the overall county population. Translated, she is attempting to answer a criminal justice and societal problem that has stymied policymakers, academics and law enforcement, among others, for decades.
And yet, like so much news at the turn of the year, it was swallowed by national news of tragedy, the fiscal crisis and President Barack Obama’s cabinet changes, and the play didn’t last long.
Also struggling to gain traction was a push by advocates, politicians and the courts to tip the balance of juvenile justice away from harsh punishment to rehabilitation. But to do so, Preckwinkle’s promise to fix local correction’s racial imbalance, weighted so heavily against blacks and Hispanics, would have to be addressed.
In Shelby County, Tenn., the problem was so profound it recently invited a federal settlement to remedy it. Still, the problem of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) continues to plague minority populations.
DMC, the racial tilt of the criminal justice system, is a long-running issue for many civil rights and advocacy organizations who have put out conflicting studies over the years that compete over the reasons, including low educational achievement and high unemployment among minorities, and urban environments with more open-air criminal conduct where the crime is more easily spotted by police (unlike in suburban and rural areas).
“For so long we’ve invested in building up these institutions (jails, juvenile courts, detention centers) at the detriment of investing in communities and social services, especially in the neighborhoods where [detained] folks are coming from,” said Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute, a national non-profit aiming, with law enforcement and community leaders, to erase racial disparity. “And that’s not a productive way of engaging your citizenry. We as a society really need to invest in education, housing infrastructure, etc., because that investment matters, as we see on the justice side.”
The trick is to speed the process and, perhaps, start to eradicate a stain on the system – one that has drawn an increasing volume of suits, legislation, and community pushes to inject balance in a system that too often spins out black and Hispanic minors who are further traumatized by prison, highly unemployable, and lacking a decent education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
Cycle of Poverty, Incarceration Systemically Tied
Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.
A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.
The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.
As it is, about 250 youth are locked up in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Roughly 80
percent of that population is black - and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.
"Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?"
Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.
"It's not necessarily true," she said, "that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you're more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race."
Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized the disparity, and taken measures to address it, be it for drugs or other felonies that could land youngsters in adult court. But it’s been a tough, often losing fight.
For example, take drug arrests of minors – a push to tackle a problem that quickly drove incarceration rates up dramatically. But recent studies show states’ recent decriminalization of some use of marijuana – including in California – has already resulted in a downward spiral in youth crime rates.
Already, pot bars are starting to grow up in that state, while others consider following its lead, and still others, including Illinois, are working on laws to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. Also, cops in Chicago have started focusing on greater stashes to justify arrests – meaning fewer people are arrested, and therefore jailed.
Indeed, in California, 2011 saw a 61 percent drop since 2010 of youth arrests for marijuana possession, according to a recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The new state law reducing that offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction directly affects juvenile detention numbers, as drug arrests are the leading cause of youth confinement.
What remains to be seen is whether the racial and ethnic disparities of those arrests will also drop. Experts hesitate to be too optimistic considering the institutionalized disparities in America’s juvenile justice system. As with most crimes, minorities aren’t more prone to drug use or drug possession than whites. Nevertheless, minorities count for a disproportionate number of drug arrests.
In 2009, the rate for drug violation arrests for black juveniles was twice the white rate, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Black youth are also much more likely (48 times more likely in 2001, and the numbers haven’t budged much since) than white youth to be incarcerated in an adult prison after a first-time drug arrest.
Laws such as California's are attempting to hit this issue from the policy level. But many of the ground-level factors contributing to DMC are not adequately addressed, according to experts in the field.
New York City police statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, police made 2.5 million stops. Of those, 90 percent were people of color and 90 percent did not result in legal action.
“The police are a critical part of the juvenile justice decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles,” according to criminal justice professor Alex Piquero of the University of Maryland-College Park.
Piquero, in research dating to 2008, said police act as the “gatekeepers” to juvenile courts, and if their decisions are somehow race-based, minorities will continue to be overrepresented in the corrections system.
“The first step is to really address the use of data within jurisdictions … to look at [the numbers] regularly enough to help drive the way people make decisions,” Barrows said.
For example, jurisdictions look at how many kids in juvenile detention centers are from a particular geographic area. In Chicago, the concentration is on the heavily minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
Other standards include the study of race, ethnicity, gender and offense. After assessing it, the idea is to monitor the data and reform the responses and thinking practices that have contributed to systematic disparity.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created by – and is directed by – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Providing a federal grant program, it requires participant states to address DMC through a data-driven approach. This calls for states and communities to assess their DMC levels and develop mitigation initiatives.
However, many in the system, including experts, the affected minors, teachers and law enforcement, say the nearly 40-year-old law has little teeth. As a result, communities nationwide are using increasingly innovative measures to tackle DMC.
Recent models use community interveners or mentors to talk to kids directly, attempting to de-escalate a situation through an adult rather than automatically resorting to detention.
In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Jamaica and South Bronx, the New York Department of Probation is collaborating with residents, businesses and organizations in what is called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.
This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.
However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.
"Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”
Bureau editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report.
Unless the U.S. Congress agrees on a different budget by the end of this year, stopping a so-called “sequestration” budget, federal spending on juvenile justice programs will fall by around 8 percent.
A total $21 million would be sliced out of Juvenile Justice Programs under the federal Department of Justice alone, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s report on sequestration. Other spending that has some effect on juvenile welfare, such as state grants from the federal Administration for Children and Families, are also in line for cuts of around 8 percent.
“We are kind of bracing ourselves,” said Kimberly Williams, juvenile justice specialist at the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission.
“Last year we had only about $1.5 million in juvenile justice funding to allocate across the whole state. And we received about $10 million in requests,” she explained, adding that they are anticipating another 7 percent cut under sequestration.
In North Carolina, those funds cover things like programs for gang-involved youth, mentoring, after-school programs and monitoring and compliance. “We have to turn away a lot of good programs,” said Williams. If the cuts come, they will likely have to turn away more.
It will be the same in other states. All have some flexibility on how they spend federal juvenile justice dollars. But their priorities and grants may change from year to year, making it difficult to know what exactly post-sequestration state spending would look like.
That Act generally requires that court-involved youth be detained separately from adults, that states address disproportionate minority contact and that juveniles who commit status offenses like curfew violations stay out of jail.
Chambers called the Act “fundamental” to good policy for youth in the justice system. The more a state’s policy mirrors federal requirements, the more juvenile justice grant money flows down to the state. Indeed, North Carolina is recovering from compliance issues that had already shrunk its federal funds.
But “even at current levels, there's been concern about states dropping compliance with the Act because they don't get enough funding to make it feasible; more cuts will probably tip that balance,” said Chambers. After years of cuts already, “we're already pretty close to that point,” of states abandoning JJDPA, he argued.
Juvenile crime has been declining for years and is now at historic lows. That’s the good news. The bad news is that girls are now the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. Although the system is still dominated by boys, in 2009, girls made up 30 percent of all juvenile arrests; up from 20 percent in 2008. Two-thirds are girls of color.
Why this increase in girl delinquents? Program operators say there is a new kind of girl coming into their programs — girls who are more troubled than those they’ve worked with in the past. These operators blame the growing ills that many adolescent girls face every day in their communities; fractured families, poverty, poor schooling and the increased availability of drugs and alcohol. Research says that adolescent girls, already struggling with self esteem and identity issues, can be very vulnerable to the conditions around them, leading them to high-risk behavior.
Other experts say that the rise in girls’ arrests has less to do with growing community dysfunction and changes in girls’ behavior, than with society’s growing intolerance for even minor crime and violence. They note that today’s courts are coming down much harder on girl offenders than they have in the past — even for low-level offenses.
Understanding the “why” of this spike in teen girl offenders is critical. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed: What do we do about the girls who are coming into the juvenile justice system in unprecedented numbers? How do we meet their needs? How do we reduce the number of girls getting caught up in the system?
I’m not implying that the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system trump those of boys. However, because boys have always dominated the system, juvenile facilities are geared to males and have been slow to respond to the growing girl population.
The research documenting differences between adjudicated girls and boys is unambiguous. Girls commit far fewer violent offenses than boys, and are more likely to be arrested for property crimes (i.e.: shop lifting) or status offenses such as running way, truancy and curfew violations. A far higher percentage of girls than boys enter the juvenile justice system with a history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and are known to self medicate through alcohol and drugs. Finally, adolescent girls need different health services than boys, including health education, gynecological exams, and sometimes, pregnancy-related care.
The bottom line is that, in most cases, girls in the system do not get their needs met and are often re-traumatized through dehumanizing and abusive treatment.
For advocacy organizations like the Child Welfare League of America, (CWLA) the answer to my question, what do we do about the girls, is straightforward. CWLA has pushed for gender-specific programming to be implemented in the juvenile justice system.
This programming recognizes girls’ specific needs and provides them with opportunities for change and growth. Researchers have identified program elements that address these needs: an emotionally safe space where girls can hold nurturing conversations and develop trusting relationships with other females; mentors whose experiences reflect the realities of girls lives and who exemplify survival and growth; education about women’s health, including female sexuality; support for continuing education; health care, including treatment for trauma, drug dependency or pregnancy and childbirth and opportunities to make positive life changes.
Further, CWLA believes that community institutions must work together to reduce the number of adolescent and teen girls entering the juvenile justice system in the first place. Activities that provide girls with access to caring adults, a healthy sense of their strengths, individuality and sexual identity as well as a feeling of optimism about the future, can help counter the risk of delinquency.
Certainly, gender-specific programming in the juvenile justice system and other community institutions is a key piece of what troubled, vulnerable girls need. However, currently, there are few programs and strategies either inside or outside of the juvenile justice system that provide this kind of support and guidance. And things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, (JJDPA), requires states to submit a three-year plan to the Department of Justice in order to access funding --- including a plan for implementing gender-specific services. However, advocates say this requirement needs to be strengthened and that JJDPA has not been re-authorized since 2002. Also, many states are attempting to divert status offenders to counseling or other community-based services to prevent entry into the juvenile justice system. But there are not enough alternative programs for all who need them, which means many girls are being incarcerated for minor offenses when what they really need is supportive programming and adult guidance.
So the question remains, what do we do about the girls?
We can continue to feed adolescent girls into an inadequate, dehumanizing system. Or we can strongly advocate that all federal, state and local agencies with youth serving mandates work with community institutions to help these vulnerable girls become strong, productive women. The choice is ours.
Two well known child advocates are making an impassioned plea to fight harder against disproportionate minority contact in juvenile justice systems nationwide. Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and her colleague, Gina E. Wood, chair of the Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee, write about unfairness, inequality and racial and ethnic disparities in Youth Today.
They urge congress to consider a DMC amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Action, currently up for reauthorization. They recommend a policy requiring every state to identify and solve problems with a six-point plan:
- Establish coordinating bodies to oversee efforts to reduce disparities.
- Identify key decision points in the system (i.e., arrest, detention, diversion) and the criteria by which decisions are made.
- Create systems to collect local data at these points of contact of youth with the juvenile justice system (including case level/individual level data) to identify where disparities exist and the causes of such disparities.
- Develop and implement plans to address disparities that include measurable objectives for change.
- Publicly report findings.
- Evaluate progress toward reducing disparities.