Youth issues are a hot topic in Congress, but whether that leads to legislative progress remains to be seen.
After several youth-related congressional hearings this summer, some youth advocates believe Congress is taking a thoughtful look at delinquency prevention, youth homelessness and youth work.
“We’re starting to see some really great traction on these issues on the Hill, in both the House and the Senate and on both sides of the aisle,” said Renée K. Carl, director of policy and government relations with the National Human Services Assembly.
“They’re trying to take a more evidence-based approach to public policy issues related to youth,” said Miriam Rollin, vice president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a group of law enforcement and victims’ rights leaders.
However, the sheer volume of work that lawmakers face could put many youth-related items on ice until winter, or beyond.
There have also been some early disappointments, such as proposed cuts in service learning. And “it doesn’t look like we’re going to get [the $1 million] appropriations” for the Federal Youth Coordination Act, said Thaddeus Ferber, program director with the Forum for Youth Investment. That means there won’t be “a central coordinated body for youth policy.”
So despite the “pockets of positive things” happening on some youth issues, he said, there isn’t “an overarching youth agenda” in Washington.
Here’s a rundown of key youth-related legislation:
The 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was reauthorized in November 2002 to continue through this year. The renewal maintained the longstanding core protections for incarcerated youth, which require the 45 states that get JJDPA funding to keep status offenders out of secure confinement, separate youth and adult prisoners and reduce the confinement of minority youth. The 2002 legislation broadened this provision to reduce minority youths’ contact with juvenile justice systems, consolidated grant programs and encouraged states to increase record-sharing between child protection and juvenile justice agencies.
What’s at stake
Liz Ryan, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based advocacy organization, sees a need to strengthen the four core requirements and reorient the fractured law around them.
Others argue that the procedures of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) for interpreting the law cry out for reform. Tara Andrews, deputy executive director for policy and programs at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), which represents juvenile justice advisory groups appointed by governors, said the office is making important decisions largely in private and without consulting the states. In one case, OJJDP’s definition of “adult” inmate may force states to move older youth from juvenile to adult facilities, which is contrary to the law’s intent.
“What we would like to see is some more guidance and direction given to the office so that it is better positioned to be a partner with the states around compliance with the JJDPA,” Andrews said.
Even if reauthorization fails this year, Congress will appropriate funding for JJDPA’s major provisions for fiscal 2008, which in effect keeps the law alive. Supporters looking to halt a years-long slide in the act’s overall funding were heartened by a House proposal to increase funding for fiscal 2008 by $59 million, to $399 million. But a Senate panel recommended keeping funding at $340 million.
E. Bruce Nicholson, legislative counsel with the American Bar Association’s governmental affairs office, said lawmakers should use reauthorization to review juvenile justice legislation now, before the issues are complicated by the presidential election year. He called the prospects for success “iffy,” given Congress’ need to finish appropriations and pass other high-status bills, such as No Child Left Behind. Andrews of CJJ agreed, saying, “We’re fighting for time on the calendar.”
Ryan said her organization, part of the newly formed ACT 4 Juvenile Justice campaign – a group of juvenile justice, child welfare and youth development organizations advocating reauthorization – will “push like hell that it gets done this fall.”
Runaway and Homeless Youth
Federal programs to provide shelter and care for runaway and homeless youth, first authorized as part of the JJDPA in the mid-1970s, were last renewed in 2004 under the Runaway, Homeless, and Missing Children Protection Act.
Funding for the act’s three main youth shelter and care programs – basic centers, transitional living programs and street outreach – has hovered between $102 million and $104 million for several years.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that in 2006, about 48,500 kids were served in basic centers, which provide emergency, short-term shelter care, and about 3,650 youth were in longer-term transitional living arrangements. Street outreach programs logged nearly 700,000 “contacts” with at-risk youth living on the streets or in other precarious situations last year, according to HHS.
What’s at stake
Reauthorization could allow for some small technical improvements and some bigger national policy changes.
According to the National Partnership to End Youth Homelessness, a consortium of national advocacy and membership groups, runaway and homeless youth programs should be better coordinated with the foster care, juvenile corrections and youth employment systems to meet youth development goals, and not just shuffle kids from one shelter to another.
The failure to improve foster care discharge planning and aftercare services for incarcerated youth strains the runaway and homeless youth system, which is why many advocates see increased funding as an even more immediate priority. They are concentrating on boosting program dollars by $37 million, to $140 million in fiscal 2008. That would extend shelter and housing services to 7,000 more youth and provide crisis intervention to another 200,000, according to the partnership.
Larger national policy changes being sought by the homeless youth prevention field include requiring HHS to set program performance standards and operational guidelines for grantees; improving data collection on youth homelessness; improving public awareness; and providing student loan forgiveness for runaway and homeless youth workers.
Even if reauthorization slows, a long-awaited funding increase could be in the offing. The Senate Appropriations Committee in late June passed a fiscal 2008 spending bill that boosts runaway and homeless youth funding by $20 million, to nearly $123 million. The House recommended a $10 million increase.
Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, who testified this summer before a House panel, said there was a “genuine level of interest there that you don’t always see at congressional hearings” to do more for runaway and homeless youth. But Bob Reeg, public policy director for the National Network for Youth, doesn’t see final reauthorization passing until next year.
Youth Job Training
The Workforce Investment Act (WIA), enacted in 1998 to replace the Job Training Partnership Act, expired in 2003 and has not been formally reauthorized.
With the House having recently held two WIA reauthorization hearings, Congress appears set to give it another go. The law consolidated a number of job-training programs into a uniform system to deliver federally funded employment and training services, and provided states and localities with the flexibility to meet local needs. About $3.6 billion was appropriated in fiscal 2007 for the three WIA programs focusing on adults, dislocated workers and youth.
What’s at stake
At issue is how well the act is serving kids, especially out-of-school youth; whether WIA’s income requirements bar many youth from receiving services; and whether the youth component is adequately funded. Some advocates have called for a restoration of the summer jobs program, which was eliminated under WIA.
Sigurd R. Nilsen, director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues for the Government Accountability Office, told a House panel this summer that local areas are focusing WIA funds on serving in-school youth to prevent academic failure and to reduce dropout rates, but are less successful at addressing the myriad needs of out-of-school kids.
The National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) estimates that overall WIA youth funds have dropped by $412 million since fiscal 2002, even as youth unemployment rates persist at three times the national adult rate. The coalition’s key objective is to raise youth employment and training funds from $940.5 million now to $1.4 billion, restoring $250 million in funding for Youth Opportunity grants (which have been unfunded for three years) or for a related demonstration program.
NYEC also wants to preserve separate formula funding streams for youth programming, streamline rules that make it hard to verify eligible youth, add foster and court-involved youth to those eligible for out-of-school services, and maintain youth councils or a similar apparatus on local WIA boards.
It may be a struggle for advocates just to hang on to the dollars WIA has now in light of a new House proposal – so far rejected by the Senate – to rescind $335 million in unspent 2007 WIA funds.
“I don’t think there’s been a huge focus on this particular bill,” said Mala Thakur, NYEC’s executive director.
While most youth advocates want Congress to act rapidly on their priorities, some feel the House Education and Labor Committee moved too quickly on a bill to reauthorize the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service.
Kelita Bak, vice president for government relations with Camp Fire USA, said she hoped the legislation to reform national service could be amended to change some of the bill’s service-learning provisions. Advocates also are unhappy that the full House cut or flat-funded several corporation programs, which Bak said “have had a huge impact on the number of young people that can be engaged in service learning.”
Many Democrats have criticized the effectiveness of this Republican priority program, but they’re not willing to fight the GOP over it – mainly because they plan to change it. Under a “reducing the need for abortions initiative,” House appropriators boosted the abstinence-education program by $27.8 million, to just under $141 million. But other recently passed legislation would allow the funding to pay for comprehensive sex education programs. The Senate appropriations panel wants to cut the program by nearly $30 million.
Higher Education for Foster Youth
The National Council for Adoption recently praised an amendment to H.R. 2669 – a bill to reduce the cost of college – to allow youth age 10 and up who are adopted from foster care to be considered “independent students,” which could allow them to qualify for more financial aid. The House passed the bill in July. Differences in the House and Senate versions must still be resolved.