No Time Like the Present: Congress approves JJDPA

By Whitney Bunts and Noel Tieszen

On Thursday, December 13, the U.S. House of Representatives cleared a monumental piece of legislation, reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) (H.R. 6964). The bill passed out of the Senate Tuesday night by unanimous consent. The bill strengthens JJDPA’s core protections, adds accountability measures, and stipulates use of evidence-based and trauma-informed approaches to juvenile justice policy and practice.

First passed in 1974, JJDPA protects the rights and safety of youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Reauthorization has been on the docket since 2013, but votes have come up short every year.

Recent changes in the Department of Justice made reauthorization even more necessary. Caren Harp was appointed the new administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which oversees implementation of the JJDPA. Within her first eight months, Harp loosened requirements for state reporting, ostensibly to simplify data management. However, this plan effectively decreased states’ accountability for reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the system. These changes mirror the current administration’s insidious pattern of civil rights rollbacks.

Under this year’s reauthorization, Congress requires OJJDP to reverse course. States must implement policies, practices, and system improvement strategies to identify and reduce racial and ethnic disparities. They will also have to create state plans that include elements such as alternatives to detention, use of community-based services, and family engagement. Once approved by OJJDP, state plans will be accessible on a public website. OJJDP will be held accountable by the Government Accountability Office for managing state compliance and providing technical assistance to states that fail to meet the law’s requirements.

This year, we have seen reversals of key civil rights protections, increased criminalization of youth culture, and failure of federal agencies to hold states accountable for equitable enforcement of the law.

In the midst of these setbacks, reauthorization of the JJDPA is a welcome victory for youth.