Keep Youth Connected to Schools, Not Courts

Steve Teske
March 14, 2014

A judge zeroes in on the need to reauthorize the JJDPA.

A zero tolerance educational and juvenile justice system makes zero sense for our youth.

I shared this important message Wednesday in Washington, D.C., as part of a Capitol Hill Round Table hosted by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). Speakers urged members of Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of this critical federal law, which helps ensure an educated judiciary. It provides important protections for youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system as well, including a prohibition on placing youth who have committed so-called “status offenses” – acts that are illegal merely because the juvenile has not yet reached the age of 18— in locked detention. An exception to this prohibition presently exists if the juvenile has acted in direct violation of a valid court order. Thus, when such an order exists, a child can be placed in a secure detention facility for behaviors such as running away from home, skipping school, and in some states, smoking tobacco.

This is bad policy. Instead of placing youth who commit status offenses behind bars, we should be focusing on ensuring that they receive the services they need so they can continue their education.

These problems have only been compounded by the move towards zero tolerance policies in schools. Children are expelled, and in some cases referred to the court system, for minor problems. Youth of color are disproportionately affected by these policies, and more likely to be expelled by their schools for minor behavioral problems. Often, this causes otherwise low-risk youth to get swept up in the juvenile justice system, while research shows that the schools themselves are often no safer, and in some cases are even less safe, as a result of these policies.

School connectedness has an important tie to juvenile crime rates. Youth who are not in school are more likely to end up in jail, and more likely to be referred to the court for status offenses.  NCJFCJ has created a School Pathways Committee to help address this problem. The program has trained 23 judges as consultants who are able to teach stakeholders how to develop successful policies in their communities to help ensure that fewer youth are referred to the courts for school-based misbehaviors.

The jurisdictions that have taken advantage of this program have seen arrests decrease in some cases by 92 percent. Juvenile crime rates, meanwhile, have dropped by 60 percent, and graduation rates in some of these communities, where youth are now in school instead of detention centers, have increased by roughly 24 percent.

The JJDPA ensures that funding is available and the judiciary can be educated about important issues such as the need to move away from policies that result in an increase in juvenile crime rates, and a decrease in graduation rates. The time for Congress to act on this important legislation is now.

Listen to a clip of Judge Teske speaking at the March 12th briefing:

For more information on the JJDPA, visit


Judge Steve Teske is the Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court in Clayton County, Ga. He was appointed to the juvenile bench in 1999 and became chief judge in 2009.


This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog project, a project of the Act 4 Juvenile Justice Campaign with help from SparkAction. The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, 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.