Within the scope of juvenile justice literature, studies highlight the need for both immediate and long-term reform measures. This is clearly pertinent given the existence of racial disparity in terms of treatment and confinement among youth in the United States. In fact, federal and state-level funding has been provided to address this dilemma during the past 10 to 15 years.
There are a variety of programs and policies that facilitate juvenile justice reform efforts. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has instituted a number of effective measures designed to reduce the use of detention among youth. One example is the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which has demonstrated promising results in a number of states.
Congress is currently reviewing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, which passed the House in May and was sent to the Senate. Certain components of this act will address either directly or indirectly the need for and evaluation of juvenile justice reform measures.
North Carolina finally increased the age at which a juvenile may be certified as an adult. Despite this needed change, implementation of this law may not take effect until 2019. After reviewing the 2016 Juvenile Justice Report as provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I noticed the following reform findings:
Between 2010-16, there was a 56 percent decrease in youth sent to detention centers and 48 percent reduction of youth sent to development centers. A 28 percent reduction in school-based complaints and a 37 percent reduction in gang affiliation among youth were also identified.
The report said that compared to their counterparts, youth of color are more than 2.5 times more likely to have complaints filed against them and 1.5 times more likely to experience secure detention.
To this end, racial disparity levels (or the ratio of blacks to whites in terms of treatment in the juvenile justice system) have either remained the same or in some cases actually increased. This begs the question: Are juvenile justice reform measures exclusively beneficial for youth who are not considered “youth of color”? If so, this is equivalent to the “whites only” segregation-based ideology of the Jim Crow era.
Ultimately, let’s not assume that progress in relation to juvenile justice reform efforts is applied in an equitable manner. Just as there is a racially disproportionate number of youth confined in the juvenile justice system, there is also a similar relationship with regard to those who avoid such treatment. From this standpoint, the abstract and practical concepts of juvenile justice reform must be re-examined.
Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine’s University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”
Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”
More than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.
This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.
Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.
There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.
[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]
Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.
“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”
At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.
But that room soon ran out of seats too.
OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”
The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.
“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.
Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”
Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”
Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.
“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”
Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.
The Senate passed by a 79-20 margin today the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which would remove the Senate confirmation requirement for hundreds of executive branch positions, including two of the top federal jobs related to child welfare and juvenile justice.
Chief among the youth-related positions affected by the bill are Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), an agency within the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice, and Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), which is part of the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The ACYF job is currently held by Bryan Samuels. Samuels led Chicago’s child welfare system before becoming a top aide to Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools. ACYF manages the Children’s Bureau, which provides federal funding to states for foster care services and also measures the performance of state child welfare services.
The Obama administration has yet to nominate a person to serve as OJJDP administrator; the office is currently led by Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski. OJJDP funds state efforts to ensure federal juvenile justice standards are being met, state advisory groups, demonstration projects, and missing and exploited children’s programs.
“As a candidate for the job, you don't understand what it means to the field and the constituencies to have that direct oversight [of a] committee in the U.S. Congress, so the field can weigh in in a very powerful way regarding who gets that position,” said former OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik, who opposes the change. “Once it becomes simply a political appointment you lose that visibility and that transparency.”
Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation also opposes the bill. Heritage’s David Addington, in an April opinion paper, wrote that “the sponsors of S. 679 have identified a valid problem, but proposed the wrong solution.”
“The Congress should not reduce the number of Senate-confirmed appointments as a means of dealing with its cumbersome and inefficient internal process for considering nominations,” Addington said. “Doing so gives away Senate influence over a number of significant appointments, does nothing to improve the Senate process, and still leaves nominees whose offices require nominations mired in the Senate process.”
The bill has the support of the Aspen Institute Commission to Reform the Appointments Process.
“S. 679 will make it possible for a new administration to fill very early in its first year about 70 communications and operations positions that new department heads need working with them to get off to a fast start and to communicate and work effectively,” the commission said in an opinion piece published this week in Youth Today and Roll Call.
Some other key youth-related positions that would no longer require a Senate confirmation vote:
Department of Education:
Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Department of Education
Commissioner – Rehabilitation Services Administration
Commissioner – Education Statistics
Members (15), National Board of Education Sciences
Department of Health and Human Services:
Commissioner, Administration for Native Americans
Corporation for National and Community Service
Managing Directors (two positions)
Department of Justice
Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance
Director, National Institute of Justice
Deputy Director, National Drug Control Policy
Deputy Director, Demand Reduction, National Drug Control Policy
Director, Office for Victims of Crime