Advocates Seek to Reform JJDP Act

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Federal juvenile justice reauthorization should for the first time encourage states to address conditions in youth jails and residential facilities, in light of recent abuses in such places as Texas and Ohio, juvenile justice advocates said late last month. But they said Congress should not make the safety of such places a new “core” requirement.

That was among the many recommendations discussed at a Capitol Hill briefing arranged by Act 4 Juvenile Justice, a coalition of more than 280 organizations that is working to improve and reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

The 34-year-old law aims to protect youth in the justice system by requiring states that accept federal funding to comply with “core” protections: sight and sound separation of youth from adults in lockup; youth removal from adult jails; deinstitutionalization of status offenders, such as runaways and truants; and reduction of minority contact at all points in the juvenile justice system.

Coalition members said they are trying to capitalize on lawmakers’ interest in updating the 1974 act; three hearings have been held so far. “We have a real shot” at getting a bill passed this year, said Tim Briceland-Betts, co-director of government affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, noting a “sense of urgency” in the field.

But recommending that lawmakers make “conditions of confinement” a new core requirement would be a mistake, said Liz Ryan, executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, in part because every state would be out of compliance. Instead, she said, advocates are trying to “elevate” the issue in the law by recommending a combination of better data and reporting practices, incentives and training money for reducing dangerous practices (such as the use of shackles and medication to subdue youth), and requirements in state plans to eliminate dangerous practices.

Ryan acknowledged the difficulties in awarding new grants to states to address conditions of confinement. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has threatened to put a hold on any new streams of money, which would stop a bill in its tracks, so any such program would have to be part of the JJDPA’s existing spending authority.

The coalition wants to double the funding for JJDPA over the next five years from its current base of about $384 million, Briceland-Betts said. He said there is “no question” that the practice of earmarking many of the juvenile justice funding accounts does “hamper” the progress of reform. Funds under Title V of the act, which deals with delinquency prevention, are often almost entirely consumed by lawmakers’ pet projects, but Briceland-Betts said there is “active consideration” on the Hill to reduce or eliminate earmarks.

A coalition survey of the juvenile justice field produced four key principles for reauthorization: keep children and youth out of the justice system; ensure equity and cultural competence; make sure that system responses are age- and developmentally appropriate; and strengthen the federal partnership with state and local governments.

The coalition hired Karen Marangi, a lobbyist from Patton Boggs LLP, to help JJDPA reauthorization become a reality. Marangi said she hopes a bill is introduced by May, noting that the legislative process can significantly slow down as election time nears.