House Juvenile Justice Hearing: Kline Stays Mum on JJDPA Reauthorization

For the first time in years, The House Education and the Workforce Committee publicly discussed juvenile justice yesterday. Scores of advocates, and the committee’s Democratic leadership, hope to translate that into legislation.

That would come in the form of a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA), which sets federal standards on juvenile justice practices and provides a modest slate of formula and competitive grants for states.

“I’m committed to working with you, chairman, on a bill that builds on what we’ve learned in the past 13 years,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), referring to the length of time since a reauthorization of JJDPA was passed.

The chairman he referred to, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), was a partner in scheduling the hearing. The question is: Will Kline work with Scott on actually producing a bill?

“Yes,” Rep. Scott said, when YSI asked if he thought Kline was interested in reauthorizing the bill. “We had this hearing. That’s the first step.”

A reauthorization of the JJPDA was introduced in June by Scott, the committee’s ranking minority member. His bill largely mirrors a version recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but also includes a scaled-down version of his PROMISE Act legislation.

That bill originally proposed to allocate billions for a program that funds communities to develop, and then implement, plans to address youth violence.

We tried months ago to ascertain from Kline’s staff whether he was on board with reauthorizing. We were not asking about Scott’s bill or any other specifics, just: Should this act continue or go away?

It is a fairly important question for two reasons:

  • There is no reauthorization during this Congress without his blessing. He is the committee chair, the bill goes through that committee.
  • The House appropriators zeroed juvenile justice out of the 2016 appropriations completely, and that is 100 percent due to the fact that the bill has not been reauthorized in so long. The Senate included money, so a complete zeroing won’t happen, but it is certainly possible that this move will drastically gut an already-declining pot of money.

What we got from Kline’s people when we asked was a guarded, nonspecific response, no hard “yes” or “no.” Yesterday, as several Democrats and a few of his Republican colleagues made supportive mentions of reauthorization, Kline did not touch it. He mentioned JJDPA once, in his opening statement:

The goal of the law is to educate at-risk youth and rehabilitate juvenile offenders so they can become productive members of society.

The law is based on the premise that the juvenile justice system can create positive opportunities for children who would otherwise go without. As we will hear from our witnesses, many juvenile justice programs have helped children develop the life skills they need to hold themselves accountable and earn their own success.

Of course, not all programs have experienced the same results. That’s why states and communities are constantly looking for new ways to better serve at-risk youth.

Yesterday’s hearing was a little strange in that JJDPA was often mentioned, but was never really the focus. The witnesses, by and large, spoke to the broader landscape of juvenile justice in America.

That is not to say their testimony wasn’t compelling. What the committee heard was a consistent message that big juvenile prisons should be tossed out in favor of therapeutic- and development-oriented alternatives in residential and community settings.

More importantly, they heard a diverse panel voice that concept. Tim Goldsmith, an executive with Youth Villages, testified about his organization’s move from a “lockup facility” toward more community programs. Before the shift, he said, “the longer they stayed, the worse they did” upon release.

Sloane Baxter, a young man from D.C. who now works two jobs, testified about how a family-oriented Boys Town program helped him thrive after he was sent there from the city’s juvenile prison.

The two other witnesses – Georgia Judge Steven Teske and Right on Crime Deputy Director Derek Cohen – did make mention of JJDPA.

Cohen, representing a conservative campaign to reform juvenile justice, wasn’t about to push for a heavy dose of federal involvement in juvenile justice. But he did throw a tacit endorsement for the concept of reauthorization at the end of his remarks: “Federal government can use future reauthorizations of the JJDPA to promote best practices and tie funding to performance metrics.”

Teske delivered the most full-throated endorsement of JJPDA, calling it “a game-changer in the juvenile justice field” and laying out specific things the act funded to help his jurisdiction drive down arrests, incarceration and recidivism.

So was it enough to win over Kline’s support for reauthorization, or any other legislation? We’ll see.

It is worth noting that while Kline has been publicly noncommittal about reauthorization, his predecessor was, um, really committal, and to no end.

Former committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), who left Congress in 2011, made several public commitments to moving a JJDPA reauthorization through the committee but it never came to fruition. The committee’s youth-related priority in recent years, under Kline, has been the continuing effort to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

At any rate, silence has turned to talk, and the field waits to see if talk turns to action.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.