What’s the Value of Federal Juvenile Justice Act? Imagine the Last 40 Years Without It

September 10, 2014

Sick of hearing about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)? Uninspired to call your representatives in Congress to fund and reauthorize the bill? Tired of sending out action alerts, op-eds, Facebook posts, and tweets about why the #JJDPAMatters?

We hear you. We have JJDPA fatigue too. After seven straight years of near inaction by Congress, we feel frustrated and uninspired too.

So what is the big deal? Funding has declined drastically since the last reauthorization in 2002, and there seems to be little political will to renew the bill.

So what if there was no JJDPA?

Remember the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” where the soon-to-be angel Clarence turns back the clock and George Bailey hasn’t been born? He takes George to see what life is like without George.

In a similar vein, let’s imagine for a moment that the JJDPA didn’t exist. What would Clarence take us to see?

Hundreds of thousands of youth in adult jails

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, more and more children were being held in county jails across the country – very often for status or very minor offenses – and subject to everything from verbal abuse to physical and sexual assault. At the time the JJDPA was passed, an estimated 500,000 kids were being housed in adult jails annually.

Youth who have committed no crime locked up in detention centers across the country.

Locking up 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 unnecessarily exposes them to the negative influences and social stigmatization of incarceration. These young people – who are frequently girls – often have unmet mental health or education needs and are better served by the appropriate human services agency rather than the justice system.

No national acknowledgement of disparate treatment of youth of color in the system.

This, despite the fact that we know youth of color are more likely than white youth to be arrested, detained, and incarcerated for similar offenses.

No Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)

The act created this office to help states enact system change and without it no federal funding for the states would be available to advance juvenile justice reforms. The only federal agency focused on juvenile justice would not exist. No federal technical assistance. No federal research and evaluation. No national standards.

In the movie, Clarence observes, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Can you imagine the awful hole we would have today if there had been no JJDPA? It is too awful to think about, right?

Thankfully, leaders in the juvenile and criminal justice field recognized the need for national leadership and worked with Congress and the Ford Administration to pass the bipartisan law we have today. Tens of thousands fewer children are being held in adult jails, status offenders are far less likely to end up in secure detention, states are working to address racial and ethnic disparities in their systems and there is some – though declining – federal support for all these efforts.

Congress stepped up back in 1974, and it’s time to step up again.

Let’s now imagine the future with a newly reauthorized and updated JJDPA that has been implemented for five years. The new law embraces the recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences report, “Reforming Juvenile Justice“, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, and the Act 4 Juvenile Justice (Act4JJ) campaign.

No youth is in an adult jail or prison anywhere in the United States. No runaways or truants are locked up. Racial and ethnic disparities are going down. A vibrant and robust OJJDP is engaging with directly impacted youth, their parents and families and is led by a formerly incarcerated youth. Robust funding is provided to states and localities to reduce detention, end the use of the training school approach, and create a rich array of community-based alternatives to incarceration and other supports for youth.

Wouldn’t that be worth advocating for?

At the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey’s family and friends come to his rescue because they know what an important role he has played in their lives. A bell rings and Clarence gets his angel wings.

We don’t need an angel to show us what life without the JJDPA would be like – it would not be good. On the 40th anniversary of the law, we know the important role it has played in the lives of thousands of young people and their families. Now it is time to galvanize support for a reauthorized JJPDA.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Jill Ward is a federal policy consultant for the Campaign for Youth Justice.

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

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, powered by SparkAction.


Liz Ryan, Jill Ward