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On April 30, 2015, the two Senators introduced legislation to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), our nation’s seminal federal legislation on juvenile justice. The JJDPA, which was first enacted in 1974, has played an important role in reforming and improving juvenile justice across the country. As Mark Soler, Director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy stated during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week on related grant programs, “this statute saves children’s lives.”
The JJDPA was first passed in 1974 and currently provides four core protections for youth including:
- Prohibiting the incarceration of young people for status offense behaviors such as running away from home or skipping school;
- Removal of youth from adult jails and lock ups;
- Sight and sound separation of youth from adults when, under rare exceptions, youth are permitted to be placed temporarily in an adult facility; and
- Requiring that states address disproportionate minority contact (DMC) within their juvenile justice systems.
States receive federal funding for voluntary compliance with the core protections. These funds have enabled them to undertake a broad range of programs to help address and correct many of the dangers that previously existed within our juvenile justice systems. Utah, for example currently uses federal funding for a program based at Salt Lake City’s Refugee and Immigrant Center. The program aims to address DMC by focusing on increasing school success. Texas, meanwhile, uses a portion of the federal funding it receives under the JJDPA to address the unique needs of girls, a rapidly growing population within the juvenile justice system.
Much work, however, still needs to be done. The JJDPA has not been reauthorized since 2002 and since that time, we have learned a great deal about adolescent brain development, the importance of trauma-informed care, and the need for programming such as that created in Texas to addresses girls’ gender-specific needs.
Chairman Grassley and Sen. Whitehouse’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2015 helps address these issues, and further strengthens the core requirements. Among other things, their bill will strengthen the DMC provision by requiring states for the first to collect data on ethnicity in addition to race. It also requires states to take concrete steps towards addressing DMC.
The bill further eliminates an exception that currently exists regarding the incarceration of youth who have engaged in status offense behaviors. Known as the valid court order (VCO) exception, this provision permits judges to incarcerate young people for behaviors such as running away from home or skipping school when the judge has previously ordered them to stop engaging in the specified behavior. Currently, nearly half of all states continue to use this exception. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, it resulted in incarceration in approximately 7,466 status offense cases nationwide in FY2014.
The new bill would phase out the use of the VCO exception. Under the legislation, states would have three years to stop using the VCO, with the potential for a one year extension based upon a showing of hardship.
The bill also includes additional funding for training and technical assistance to help states come in to compliance with the Act. This assistance is an important way to help ensure that our youth are protected, and that states receive the tools they need to comply with the JJDPA.
CJJ and our community of juvenile justice advocates are grateful to Chairman Grassley and Sen. Whitehouse for this legislation and the important steps it will help us take forward for our children. This important law has not been reauthorized in more than a decade. The time is now to ensure that it is updated and reauthorized. We are grateful to the Senators for leading our nation forward on this important issue.