Juvenile Justice Legislation Celebrates its 41st Birthday

Jillian Luchner
September 8, 2015

As the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) celebrates its 41st birthday this month, the possibility of a new tune up is on the horizon. The law, last reauthorized in 2002, is again up for reauthorization. Senator Grassley’s bill, S. 1169, aims to give the important law the alterations it needs to bring it up to date.

The 2002 reauthorization of the legislation made some initial strides in protecting children under age 18 from exposure to the adult criminal justice system. It also secured some of the necessary data collection on juvenile custody in order to provide a national picture of the youth whom state juvenile justice systems serve—including demographic and education obtainment data—and their levels of effectiveness.

Most importantly perhaps, the law authorized funding and technical assistance to support preventative and comprehensive services to juveniles and the staff who work in the system. These provisions aim to lower both rates of children’s entry and their rates of return into the juvenile justice system. This includes after-school programs, mentoring and programs for positive youth development.

New legislation proposed in the Senate (S. 1169) strengthens the 2002 edition of the law. First, it includes provisions to support a “trauma-informed continuum of programs (including delinquency prevention, intervention, mental health and substance abuse treatment and aftercare).” This addition represents the strides made by the research community over the last decade in better understanding adolescent behavior and using that knowledge to address the needs of youth whose actions may trigger involvement with the justice system.

It also strengthens the provision to ensure truants, runaways and other troubled youth are not locked up.  The new law closes a loophole that had allowed these “status offenders,” young people who had committed no crime, to be unnecessarily detained.  Detaining and incarcerating non-delinquent, youth who have engaged in status offense behaviors interrupts education, pulls them away from family and community, and can harmfully stigmatize them.  We know exposure to the juvenile justice system leads to more involvement not less.  The new law encourages states to find more effective ways to address the needs of youth who commit status offenses.

To help encourage a positive youth development approach, the bill would support the training of adults  “in the fields of medicine, law enforcement, the judiciary, juvenile justice, social work, child protection, (and) education” who work with young people at risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system. The law also encourages more family engagement in the treatment process. Building relationships and trust is a key to long term success, and the recognition that not only youth can benefit from training is a huge advancement.

The proposed bill would also perform other important functions. It would require that states do more to address the well-documented racial and ethnic disparities that exist in the juvenile justice system. It would require that states to have a plan for re-entry programs for youth who had been incarcerated, and to track recidivism rates. It would require states to ease the transfer of educational credits to ensure students aren’t falling behind. And it would increase accountability of grantees through program audits and evaluations to make certain funding is being tied to programmatic progress toward goals.

A birthday is always a good time to celebrate and to reevaluate what is working and what we might like to do better. The JJDPA is an essential piece of legislation to protect children as they grow into our next generation of adults and community members. The changes proposed in  S. 1169 keep what’s working while integrating new knowledge, providing new essential supports, and strengthening accountability and equity. To learn more see http://sparkaction.org/jjdpamatters. Happy Birthday JJDPA!

Jillian Luchner is a Policy Associate with the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization supporting children’s access to quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities nationwide.

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

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.