On Capitol Hill, a Bipartisan - and Personal - Call to Renew the JJDPA

October 9, 2015

On October 8, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce held a hearing, Reviewing the Juvenile Justice System and How It Serves At-Risk Youth.

In attendance were 23 Members of Congress, along with numerous staffers and juvenile justice advocates. They heard testimony from a clinical expert, a conservative policy analyst, a juvenile court judge and a young person. Each shared their expertise and personal stories about what works and what must be fixed in juvenile justice, and made a strong case for strengthening federal law.

They—together with lawmakers on both side of the aisle—called for Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the nation’s primary juvenile justice law, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in order to support states in enacting effective reforms. (More on the JJDPA and why it matters.)

A bipartisan JJDPA Reauthorization bill was introduced in the Senate earlier this year. Speakers called for a similar bill to be introduced in the House.

“We All Have a Role to Play”

Rep. Kline (R-MN) chairman of the House Ed and Workforce Committee, kicked off the discussion with a powerful statement on the need for a collaborative and bipartisan approach to juvenile justice, one that keeps communities safe but brings better outcomes for young people at the same time. 

“The juvenile justice system can create positive opportunities for children … to develop the life skills they need to hold themselves accountable and earn their own success.”              
-Rep. Kline (R-MN)

To those wondering why the Education & Workforce Committee—and not the Judiciary Committee—held the hearing, he said it’s “because keeping our communities safe and supporting at-risk youth requires more than an adjudication system and a detention facility. It requires education, rehabilitation, and family participation—a joint effort by parents, teachers, community members, and civic leaders to prevent criminal behavior and support children who have engaged in illegal activity.”

“We all have a role to play,” Kline said. He noted that the JJDPA “is based on the premise that the juvenile justice system can create positive opportunities for children who would otherwise go without,” and called for it to be reauthorized.

Judge Steven Teske, chief judge of the Clayton County, Georgia, Juvenile Court, also called on participants to keep young people at the center of our policy and our interventions. That means using data to craft effective, trauma-informed interventions.

It also means using federal law to ensure consistency and fairness across states. “We do nothave a national, centralized juvenile justice system,” he noted. Instead, we have a patchwork of more than 56 juvenile justice systems independently operated by states, territories, and local governments, “with inconsistent outcomes for youth, families and communities, including youth exposure to physical, mental and emotional injury.”

“The JJDPA is designed to bring consistency in juvenile justice best practices among all the States,” he said, citing the four core protectionsthat the law guarantees to every young person involved in the system.

He also highlighted a critical issue that is getting increasing attention in communities across the country: the disproportionate involvementof boys and girls of color in the justice system.

In Georgia, Teske said, “the JJDPA has been a game changer,” directly enabling the county to create several programs that have significantly reduced racial and ethnic disparities, and led to a 62 percent reduction in juvenile arrests and a stunning 83 percent reduction in the number of young people in juvenile detention in a given day. 

These gains were made possible directly as a result of the JJDPA. “The juvenile justice system must be appropriately resourced and must embrace practice informed by science,” Teske said.

Tim Goldsmith from Youth Villages—a nonprofit that supports children, youth and families including those involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—shared data from decades of work that show that community-based interventions not only bring better outcomes for youth than incarceration, they do it at a fraction of the cost. Nationally, it costs more than $400 a day to house a young person in a juvenile detention facility, while proven alternatives (like YouthVillage and YouthBUild) cost between $75 and $100 a day.

Getting Smarter

Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime, a conservative nonprofit think tank, spoke about the need to “get smarter, not tougher” on crime.

His home state of Texas has implemented reforms that focus on rehabilitation, promoting community-based approaches that address special needs of young people over detention. The result? Since 2009, Texas has seen a drop in juvenile incarceration rates and spending on juvenile justice—while at the same time seeing an increase in public safety.

Being smart on crime "does not mean being soft on crime. It's a matter of using the best possible tools for the job."
- Derek Cohen, Right on Crime

Being “right on crime”—using approaches that are proven to work, reduce inequity, save money and can be embraced by conservatives—does not mean being “soft” on crime, Cohen said. “It is a matter of using the best possible tools for the job.”

Sloane Baxter, 22, shared his personal story of struggling as a young person and ending up involved with the justice system. After nearly a year in a DC juvenile detention facility, he was referred to Boys Town, a community-based, therapeutic residential program. He went from living in a prison-like setting to being one of six young men living in a family-like setting, headed by a married couple trained to support him. 

When asked by members what made the difference for him, he didn’t hesitate: the adults who allowed him to make his own decisions, take on more responsibilities, and even to fail—with support—in order to understand his ability to drive his own life.

“[That placement] was the first place that I went where I felt like the people actually cared about what they did,” he said.  “I didn’t know what my leadership potential was before I was exposed to different things at Boys Town.”

Baxter praised the bipartisan support for proper juvenile justice reform and urged Congress to pass the bill.  Boys Town, Youth Villages and other alternatives to incarceration are supported under the federal JJDPA.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) shared his desire to see more alternative sentencing approaches that focus on work experience, training and building relationships within the community, rather than jail time.

Longtime champion of the JJDPA and ranking member on the Committee, Bobby Scott (D-VA), spoke about the advances in adolescent brain science research that helped shape the new JJDPA bill.  “We know that children and adolescents are developmentally different than adults, he said, which must influence how we determine culpability and respond to offenses.”

The transcripts of the remarksat the House hearing are available online:

Amy Harfeld is SparkAction's advocacy strategy specialist and the national policy director and senior staff attorney with the Children's Advocacy InstituteCaitlin Johnson is SparkAction's co-founder and managing editor.



This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.



Amy Harfeld & Caitlin Johnson





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