My 2014 Wish List for a Reauthorized but Improved JJDPA

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By Robin Jenkins, Ph.D.

2014 – wow. The time is a-aflyin’, isn’t it? So let’s get down to real business this year and reauthorize the JJDP Act. Not the baseline, compliance-focused, core requirements sort of formula that the JJDPA is known for. No, let’s re-imagine the JJDPA as perhaps JJDPA 5.0.

My ‘New Year’ wishes include many things related to vulnerable children and social justice. Somehow I hope that a dialogue catches fire as to the need to put many more resources toward supporting families, early childhood initiatives, more effective education strategies, medical and health efforts, and community engagement to help us proactively support children and families before major problems occur. But near the top of my list is a wish for federal leadership and innovation that truly engages the broad field known as juvenile justice and leverages federal, state and local resources in ways not previously imagined.

So without further ado and in hopes that this post somehow gets part of the dialogue started, the following elements are additions/modifications to the currently proposed JJDPA reauthorization effort that I would love to see included in any future legislation. By no means is the list comprehensive.  (remember this is a blog and not a thesis):

  • More attention to creating a field-growing and cutting edge OJJDP, one that has the authority and reasonably sufficient resources to truly innovate, conduct research (or fund research), translate research into realistic program strategies, evaluate, and provide appropriate levels of training and technical assistance where needed – in addition to being “state-friendly” when dealing with compliance related concerns
     
  • A capability within the JJDPA that incentivizes states (e.g., affords them more dollars) to help create and maintain “practice excellence” standards for their State Advisory Groups (i.e., offer additional resources/tools/opportunities to those states that develop and sustain SAGs that actually achieve basic requirements, but also moves them toward excellence in the field). This new federal capability might include options to:
    • Include incentives to grow and leverage SAG federal dollars with other state, local and philanthropic resources to enhance their juvenile justice system networks
       
    • Develop and maintain a sustainable training and competency (skill-based) system for SAG members to ensure that they not only understand their basic requirements under the Act, but find ways in their states to become the effective policy and practice “voice” for vulnerable at-risk and juvenile justice involved youth as appropriate with other partners/entities
       
    • Include incentives from OJJDP for states (SAGs) to adopt, sustain, measure and report on the evolution of their strategies toward evidenced-supported practices. True evidence-supported practices when delivered well save money and achieve better results. Why not do this? This is better government
       
    • Include incentives or even hold-harmless rules/practices that allow SAGs that are in JJDPA compliance to try new ideas or programming with some portion of their federal dollars, in response to unique needs or cultural issues within their jurisdictions (in other words, keep a focus on evidence-supported practices but incentivize culturally, racially and community-relevant approaches not-yet created or delivered to the EBP literature)
       
    • Foster more effective partnerships with grass-roots advocacy and other agencies as they often have strong local knowledge into the dynamics driving community conditions and can really lend a hand in fostering improvements in legislative, program, and budget thinking. This needs to be a concrete expectation, in my view, moving forward as SAGs can become insular and a bit removed from various activities within the states
       
    • Create and maintain more integrated state-level (and local) data systems that truly help understand the unique vs. duplicated counts of youths in various juvenile justice, mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, education, and related systems –until we can accurately describe and plan for childrens’ needs in holistic ways, we often re-create bureaucratically driven efforts to help that are duplicative, expensive and cause major problems with accountability
       
    • A significant national and state-by-state process  for understanding how to phase out the Valid Court Order exception so that judges and law enforcement have effective alternatives that can truly be effective in lieu of juvenile detention
       
    • A national dialogue with concrete, measurable and actionable strategies on how to improve the conditions confronting children of color in this country. Inextricably linked to the income gap, poverty, and opportunity, this dialogue must coincide with the Concentration of Federal Efforts piece of the existing Act. It is also part and parcel to thinking of juvenile justice as youth development, not youth detainment/incarceration. We must re-label and repackage our work based on research emerging over the last few decades

 

So we’ll hold here and dream of these elements for now — but if we could move our federal and congressional leadership toward thinking of the JJDPA not as more or bigger government, but as a set of tools that actually reduce government’s responsibilities to react to youth problems by engaging in science-supported ways and avoiding a reliance on interventions too late in the equation. A focus on evidence supported prevention, proven practices, true system wide quality improvement, properly funded evaluation, sustainability, effective community/family engagement, and locally efficacious systems of care guided by strong federal policy and leadership — now that would be a 2014 worth waiting for.

 

This op-ed has been reprinted from Robin Jenkins' blog.

Robin Jenkins, Ph.D. has a 30+ year history of involvement with vulnerable children. He is deeply committed to helping find solutions for children, families, communities and the systems designed to afford them opportunities. His background includes work in behavioral health, juvenile justice, substance abuse, nonprofit development and management, state government work as well as instructing college students through various psychology-related courses.