Prioritize Prevention and Rehabilitation over Punishment: Reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

By Andrea Barnes

Earlier this spring, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA). Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced a companion bill in the House. If passed, these bills would reauthorize JJDPA’s grant programs through FY 2020.

JJDPA funds programs supporting youth who are involved in—or are at risk of being involved in—the criminal justice system.  Title II programs include prevention programs for at-risk youth, law enforcement and judicial training, mental health interventions, keeping youth out of adult jails and lockups, and keeping status offenders out of jail. Title V programs include the Tribal Youth Program and youth violence prevention and interventions.

JJDPA’s authorization expired in 2007. Since then, Congress has continued to appropriate funds, but the investment declines each year. For FY 2015, Congress funded Title II programs at $55.5 million and Title V programs at $15 million. Support for FY 2016 funding varies. The House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee eliminates funding for Title II and Title V in its  FY 2016 budget. In the Senate, the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee (CJS) preserves Title II and Title V programs in its FY 2016 budget.

Continuing the JJPDA is critical for many reasons, including its requirement that states meet four core mandates: de-institutionalization of status offenders, addressing disproportionate minority contact, sight and sound separation of juveniles in adult facilities, and removal of juveniles from adult jails and lock-ups. While juvenile arrest rates have fallen and there are fewer youth incarcerated in deep-end residential facilitates (which more closely resemble prisons than residential treatment centers), the core mandates of JJPDA have not been fully met. Status offenders are still being locked up when they would be better served in community settings, and minority youth are still over-represented at nearly every level of the juvenile justice system.

According to the latest data from the Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report:

  • 11 percent of juveniles in residential placements were held in the facility but were not charged with or adjudicated for abuse, neglect, emotional disturbance, or mental retardation.
  • In 2010, on any given day, nearly 71,000 juvenile delinquents were in residential placement facilities. More than 6 in 10 juvenile offenders in residential placement were minority youth, with Black youth experiencing the highest rates.

For those youth involved in the system, JJDPA funding supports a variety of tailored services, including mental health care in community settings. With 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system meeting criteria for at least one mental health disorder, continued investment in mental health care is critical to reduce justice system involvement. Youth in juvenile justice facilities do receive some mental health services – in 6 of 10 facilities, in-house mental health professionals evaluated all youth held. However, residential placement is not the best environment for youth to receive mental health treatment; more than half of youth experience theft or violence while in placement. Several studies have shown that youth who are incarcerated are more likely to recidivate than youth who are supervised in a community-based setting or not detained at all.

South Dakota and West Virginia are two states showing leadership in juvenile justice reform—saving their states millions of dollars while reducing recidivism. Prioritizing incarceration for only the most serious and violent offenders, as well as expanding re-entry and treatment programs, will go a long way in increasing public safety while also helping at-risk youth. Much progress has been made since 1974 to protect system-involved youth. However, our work is far from done. JJDPA is still needed to influence and encourage states to prioritize prevention and rehabilitation over punishment. We urge Congress to reauthorize this vital law.