Youth Advocates Gear Up to Fight Over The Fine Print

Patrick Boyle
July 1, 1999

Drowned out in the congressional cacophony last month over putting safety locks on guns and displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings were some of the most sweeping juvenile crime laws ever passed in Washington.

The fine print of the juvenile crime bill passed by the House in June and the one passed by the Senate in May reveals what the legislation really could mean for youth and youth-serving agencies. Aside from well-publicized provisions like allowing the prosecution of 13-year-olds as adults, there are “prevention” funds that don’t have to go to prevention, new grants for community-based organizations for youth development and money set aside for a few lawmaker favorites (like a prevention program sponsored by the Wisconsin-based Alliance for Children and Families.). There are major disagreements in the bills: while the Senate version (S. 254) eliminates a federal law that supports programs aimed at rectifying the disproportionate number of minority youth who are arrested, convicted and imprisoned, the House version (H.R. 1501) retains that mandate.

That means it ain’t over til it’s over. Having tussled with the Senate and the House, youth advocates and lobbyists are gearing up for Round III: the conference committee. That may prove the most important round of all. That’s where the differences will be ironed out and one final bill will emerge for passage — or the whole effort will collapse.
Perhaps the two biggest outstanding issues for youth-service providers are ensuring that hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for juvenile crime prevention actually goes for that purpose (rather than for punishment), and making sure the House wins the battle over disproportionate minority confinement (DMC).

Although the nation’s youth advocacy organizations by and large blasted the bills — “A slap in the face to America’s youth,” the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) screamed about the House measure — they were relieved that these were less harsh on kids than last year’s juvenile crime bills, S. 10 and H.R. 3. The legislation was initially driven by the simple need to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which had expired, but the series of school shootings over the past two years turned the legislation into a soapbox for venting about the problems with today’s kids.
“It’s the best we’re going to get this year,” said Robbie Callaway, senior vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which endorsed the Senate bill.

Wither Juvenile Justice?

Youth advocates were pulling out their hair last month listening to the House debate, where substantive juvenile justice issues where swept aside for speeches on hot-button cultural topics like violence in movies and prayers in the classroom.

“They focused almost entirely on guns, the Ten Commandments, the Internet, video games and the movies,” said a frustrated Miriam Rollin, public policy director for the D.C.-based National Network for Youth. “They spent a relatively minuscule amount of time on the juvenile justice reforms that would potentially make the biggest difference in juvenile crime.”

It’s not that those issues aren’t important, youth advocates said; they just felt that the juvenile justice bill wasn’t the place for those speeches.

“What I was struck by was the amazing irony of the debate,” said staff attorney Marc Schindler of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. “We’re talking about making sure 17-year-old kids are protected from R-rated movies and violent material on the Internet. It would suggest that we believe 17-year-olds are not responsible and mature enough to handle those types of things. Yet they’re talking about prosecuting kids as young as 13 as adults, holding them fully responsible for their adolescent behavior, and locking them up with adults.”

As House members debated allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public settings (passed) and banning the sale of certain sexually explicit material to minors (defeated), Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said, “None of this is going to make any difference.”

Both bills, however, contain provisions that could make a big difference for kids, although most of those provisions were not the subject of much public discussion.

Blocks of Money

The bills include three major funding sources: the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JAIBG), a new Juvenile Delinquency Prevention block grant, and the formula grants that have been given out under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) since 1975, which have recently been totaling $200 million a year.

All the funds authorized under these categories are simply that — authorizations. Actual funding would have to be separately appropriated. (The Clinton administration’s FY ‘00 budget request included no money for JAIBG.)

The big battle will be to secure funding to prevent rather than react to juvenile crime. Callaway said the Senate bill authorizes up to $460 million for prevention programs. (The total is unclear in the House bill.) The question is how much will really go to prevention, and how much would reach community based youth-serving programs.

JAIBG would grow from its $250 million annual funding in recent years to $500 million. The Senate bill says 25 percent of the money to the states would have to be set aside for prevention, while the House bill has no such requirement. “That’s going to be a very contentious issue in the conference committee,” said Tim Briceland-Betts, public policy analyst for the CWLA.

The House bill also allows JAIBG money to be used for “pro-active programs,” like anti-gang programs, and for the creation of confidential toll-free schools safety hotlines.

The delinquency prevention block grant is funded at $200 million in the Senate bill, with no amount cited in the House bill. Youth advocates thought they won a victory when Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) got approval of an S.254 amendment requiring that 80 percent of the money be designated for primary prevention uses, such as to help “juveniles in making the transition to the world of work and self-sufficiency,” “to encourage new approaches” to prevent school violence, “to assist in identifying learning difficulties,” and to develop mentoring and anti-truancy programs. But the list also includes several items involving the assessment and treatment of “juvenile offenders” and “incarcerated juveniles.”

“You’ll hear all this talk about this new prevention block grant,” Briceland-Betts said. “But the fact is that it’s prevention plus a lot of other potential uses of the funds for kids who have been adjudicated. Those are good and important programs and services, but they are [already] being funded from other sources.”

Youth advocates worry that much if not most of the money would go to dealing with kids already adjudicated. “Recent history demonstrates that when there’s competition between prevention and higher end uses, the higher end uses win out. Prevention uses lose,” Briceland-Betts said.

Callaway of Boys & Girls Clubs isn’t so concerned about using some of that grant money for adjudicated juveniles. “Some of the money for incarcerated kids is to get those kids out of the system,” he said.

The CWLA and others will try to get those non-prevention uses eliminated. “If you’re going to have a prevention block grant in name, you should make it for prevention,” said John Brooks, assistant director of public policy for the YMCA of the USA. The House bill also allows prevention block grant money to be used for improving school security, including the purchase of metal detectors.

Minority Confinement

Youth advocates such as Della Hughes, executive director of the Network for Youth, were angry in May when the Senate rejected by a close shave (52-48) an amendment by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) to retain a federal law requiring states to develop strategies for dealing with the disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) of juveniles. A key player in the defeat was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who said on the Senate floor that African-American juveniles were arrested and locked up more often than kids of other races because “there are more young African-American kids committing crimes, and especially vicious crimes and violent crimes.”

The NAACP accused Hatch of “sleepwalking through history.” (Last month Hatch said he will run for the Republican presidential nomination, and said one of his policy goals was racial healing.)

The House, however, voted 414-16 to retain the law. Most liberal youth advocacy groups see retention of the DMC law as one of the most important battles in the conference committee.

Incarcerated Kids

Both bills loosen current requirements that detained juveniles have “sight and sound” separation from detained adults. The House bill prohibits “unsupervised incidental contact” between juveniles and adults in state custody, leading advocates to believe it would allow “supervised” incidental contact.

“We’re afraid the House language would actually allow adult institutions to parade kids by [adults] as a regular course of business, as long as it was incidental contact,” Rollin said.

Both bills extend the conditions under which juveniles in state custody may be temporarily held in adult jails. For instance, both allow kids in rural areas to be held in adult jails for up to 48 hours while awaiting an initial court appearance, double the current 24 hours. The Senate bill allows parents to consent to an arrested juvenile being held in an adult jail indefinitely. Parents would sometimes want this, Rollin said, because “the adult jail may be closer to home.” The measure requires a review every five days. The House version allows for pre-sentencing detention in adult jails for up to 20 days. The National Network and the Youth Law Center are among those that will push for the House version, with reservations.

Both bills require states to adopt graduated sentencing systems for juveniles in order to access JAIBGs. The House bill says juvenile courts that do not impose graduated sanctions must submit an annual report explaining why not.

Juvenile Records

Both bills require the federal system to maintain “adult-equivalent” record systems on juveniles convicted of felonies, and to share those records with law enforcement and schools that the youths may be attending or applying to. The Senate bill includes $75 million for states to upgrade their records systems, but “to get that money you have to open the juvenile records,” said Liz Ryan, the House liaison in intergovernmental affairs for the Children’s Defense Fund.

Federal Prosecutions

Both bills expand the conditions under which juveniles can be prosecuted in federal court. The Senate bill lowers from 16 to 14 the age at which a youth can be tried as an adult in federal court for a serious violent felony or drug offense. The House bill lowers the age to 13. The bills leave the decision up to federal prosecutors rather than judges, a change from current law.

“The federal prosecution of juveniles is a significant concern for us,” said Schindler of the Youth Law Center. One reason is that the law “hits disproportionately on Native American kids.” (The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says that about two-thirds of the federal juvenile population — now at about 270 — are Native Americans). He is also concerned that the federal model for prosecuting juveniles as adults “is setting up a model for the states to follow.”

The sponsors of the measure said it would probably affect very few juveniles, considering how few are in the federal system now. Callaway said that although he doesn’t like that and other measures — such as sometimes mixing juveniles with adults in jails — “some of the youth advocates got a little carried away on things that would affect such an infinitely small number of kids.”

Youth Organizations

In a section called, “Grants to Youth Organizations,” the Senate bill says grants can be made to “community-based nonprofit organizations in crime-prone areas (such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Police Athletic Leagues, 4-H Clubs, YMCA....)” for after-school activities and anti-drug programs. It says 80 percent of the “amounts made available” are to go to nonprofit CBOs, with the rest to national or statewide nonprofits. “The problem is,” said Brooks of the YMCA, “we’re having some difficulty determining how much money” would be authorized.

The Senate bill also creates a “Parenting as Prevention Act” that creates a commission to study how to improve parenting services for at-risk kids, and “parenting support” grants for “Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA and YWCA, after-school programs, 4-H programs, or other community-based organizations.”

The House bill tries to make it easier for faith-based agencies to carry out government-funded juvenile justice programs, declaring a policy of “non-discrimination” against such agencies in competing for grants.

Targeted Funds

There are only a few authorizations in the Senate bill for specific programs. One is $45 million over five years for Families and Schools Together (FAST), a prevention program coordinated by the Alliance for Children & Families, based in Milwaukee, Wis. The program brings together schools, parents and community agencies to develop prevention “agendas” for kids deemed at risk for academic, criminal, substance abuse and other social problems. Since 1992 FAST has been replicated at 400 sites in 30 states and Canada, with funding from the Dewitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund ($1.6 million), Kraft Foods ($600,000), the Metropolitan Life Foundation ($1000,000), and $35 million raised in the local communities that the programs serve.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) introduced the amendment to fund an expansion of FAST, which became part of the Senate bill. But Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s (D-Wis.) effort to pass a similar amendment in the House failed. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed” that the Senate amendment survives the conference committee, said Brad Fitch, Baldwin’s chief of staff.

Another designation was $3.8 million to establish a School Security Technology Center at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The center, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, would help schools assess their security systems and use technology to upgrade those systems. The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.Mex.). The lab has worked with numerous schools in recent years to use video surveillance, motion censors and campus design changes to cut down on vandalism, theft and fights. The bill includes $10 million a year for schools to acquire security-related technology.

The bill also increases the authorization for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP) from $15 million a year to $20 million. And it provides $5 million to the National Institute of Health to conduct behavioral research into the causes of youth violence.

The Senate bill essentially eliminates the research and education work of OJJDP by creating a National Institute for Juvenile Crime Control and Delinquency Prevention to study prevention programs and fund new research. That move is actually less severe than a evisceration of OJJDP that was requested by the Department of Justice, and which had drawn protests from advocacy groups such as the Youth Law Center. Still, said the center’s Schindler, “We are concerned about it and hope it gets fixed on conference.”
The House bill does not reauthorize the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which is comprised of representatives of state advisory groups and is funded at $712,500 from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The Senate bill does reauthorize the coalition, so its survival depends on who wins in conference committee, said executive director David Doi.

As of late last month the conference committee schedule had not been set; indications were that it might not occur until late summer. It is there, away from the glare of the media and the public, that legislators, lawyers and lobbyists will really determine how the United States handles its troubled and at-risk youth.

Boyle, Patrick. "Youth Advocates Gear Up to Fight Over The Fine Print." Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 46-47.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.