Congress: Don't Pull the Rug Out From Juvenile Justice

Liz Ryan
July 31, 2013

Federal Funding Cuts Threaten Key Protections for Youth in the Justice System

The federal funding cuts in juvenile justice approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees earlier this month threaten to substantially undermine the implementation of the landmark Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

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Continued deep cuts in federal juvenile justice funding sends the wrong message to states and localities about the importance of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and would leave many states with little incentive or support to maintain its core protections for children.

Keeping Kids out of Adult Jails: example, one of the key core protections in the JJDPA law is the Jail Removal protection, which requires states to keep children under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, out of adult jails or lockups.  

When this provision was adopted in 1980, there were an estimated 300,000 children in adult jails and lock-ups annually throughout the country. Since then, the Jail Removal core protection has effectively stopped the placement of hundreds of thousands of children in adult jails and lockups every year.

An adult jail is no place for a young person.  If youth are placed in general population, they are at high risk of sexual assault and physical abuse.  If youth are placed in isolation or segregated units to “protect” them, they face extreme risk of exacerbated emotional and mental health problems, including a high chance of suicide. 

Simply put, an adult jail cannot be retrofitted to safely house youth. Knowing the dangers youth face, why would we open the door to allowing more children to be placed in adult jails?  We shouldn’t.  But if we allow Congress to continue to cut critical juvenile justice funding, that’s exactly what could happen.

Disproportionate Minority Confinement:  A core protection, the “Disproportionate Minority Confinement” (DMC) provision, requires states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system.  In the 2002 reauthorization, the term confinement was changed to "contact" emphasizing the disparities at all points in the juvenile justice system.  The JJDPA’s DMC provision has ensured funding to every state to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. And as a result, there are some promising efforts in a number of states, including the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) and the Models for Change (MfC) initiative.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division investigation into the operations of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County Tennessee underscores why much more must be done to reduce the stark disparities in the juvenile justice system.  In 2012, the department found extensive racial disparities in the treatment of African American children: African American youth are twice as likely as white youth to be recommended for transfer to adult court.  DMC reduction efforts should be expanded, not rolled back.

Addressing "Status Offenses":  Another crucial JJDPA provision requires that status offenders not be detained in secure facilities. Known as the “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO provision,” this core protection applies to youth whose actions would not be considered offenses at the age of majority, such as skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol.  The DSO provision, which disproportionately affects girls, was designed to ensure that these youth, who often have unmet mental health or education needs, receive help from the appropriate human services agency rather than the justice system. The JJDPA’s DSO provision has ensured funding to every state to make it possible for them to keep status offenders out of secure facilities and in community-based programs instead.

If Congress continues the trend of deep cuts in federal juvenile justice funding, states and localities will have few incentives to continue to implement the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act's core protections for children.

At a time when many states are advancing juvenile justice reforms to remove youth from adult courts, adult jails and prisons, as well as reduce racial and ethnic disparities and lower youth incarceration rates, why would Congress pull the rug out from under successful state juvenile justice reforms?

Does this make you want to take action? It's not to late to let your elected officials know where you stand on funding for juvenile justice approaches. All you need is your zip code, we'll help you do the rest!  Act now >>

Liz Ryan is President & CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ).