Obama’s Juvenile Justice Plan Lowers the Bar for National Standards


After 36 years, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) as we know it is facing a significant change that fundamentally diminishes its power to establish a single, unifying message about the way juvenile justice should operate in the United States.

President Obama’s 2012 budget proposes to incentivize compliance with JJDPA through a new line item called the Juvenile Justice System Incentive Grants and funds it to the tune of $120 million. This new pot of funds appears to be a combination of previously budgeted lines for Title II Formula Grants, which were used to support state compliance with the JJDPA, and the Juvenile Justice Accountability Block Grants.  

On the surface it seems that this is a fantastic opportunity, in the spirit of “Race to the Top” from the Department of Education, to encourage states to come into full compliance with the four core principles of the JJDPA:

1) Deinstitutionalization of youth charged with status offenses.

2) Removal of youth from jails.

3) Sight and sound separation of youth from adults when held in an adult facility.

4) Reducing disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

However, the reality is that the funds are not likely to reach the states that are most in need of support to reach compliance for the following reasons:

Eligibility: Only states that are already in compliance with the JJDPA are eligible to apply for the new Juvenile Justice System Incentive Grants. Advocates say that about one in five states and territories are currently not in compliance, therefore leaving them out of the running altogether.

Lack of support for compliance: The 2012 proposal provides no federal funds to support achievement of compliance with JJDPA, thus providing no incentive to even try to come into compliance and potentially leaving these states behind permanently.

Competitive Process: States that are already in compliance with the JJDPA and apply for grants are not guaranteed funding. Potentially, the entirety of the $120 million could be divided across five states, leaving 59 other states and territories with no funding at all.

The cutting of funds for the support of the JJDPA in all states and territories is not concerning just because there are fewer dollars and cents available, but also because it sends the message that the federal government does not support the philosophy of the JJDPA.

The JJDPA establishes a national standard for how juvenile justice should operate in the United States. It certainly is not perfect and, as stated earlier, not all states are in compliance.  Nonetheless, it is a unifying principle to which states refer regarding their juvenile justice practices. Without the JJDPA philosophy backed by financial incentive, we run the risk of filling our detention centers with youth who have committed status offenses and housing our children side-by-side with adults in jails. The JJDPA helps protect us from the worst case scenario.

The dismantling of funding that supports states in their achievement of the principles that protect youth that come into contact with the juvenile justice system strikes a deeper blow to juvenile justice in the U.S. than simply a lack of funds.  Requiring innovative and evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice is important, but punishing states before they even get a chance to try is bad public policy.

- Tracy Velázquez is executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. She also serves on the board of directors for the American Youth Work Center, the parent organization for Youth Today.