Notes on Push for Juvenile Justice Act Reauthorization

The last time the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was authorized, President George W. Bush’s approval rating was still hovering around 70 percent and the Boston Red Sox most recent World Series win was in 1918.

Are we on the verge of a fresh reauthorization? Many juvenile justice advocates would like to think so. But with JJPDA, it has been more than a decade of tremors without an earthquake since the last update in November of 2002.

The most recent rumblings under the earth were caused by a Congressional field hearing in Rhode Island this week, hosted by Senate Judiciary Committee member and former prosecutor Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Whitehouse informed the audience that he would introduce “bipartisan legislation” to reauthorize the act “very soon.”

“This is the most important piece of legislation in this area,” Whitehouse said of the act, and there are “12 years of experience not incorporated into it.”

For the uninitiated, the JJDPA has set federal standards on juvenile justice since 1974, and invites states to comply with four “core requirements.” These are:

  • Not detaining status offenders
  • Keeping juveniles out of adult facilities, with some exceptions
  • When those exceptions are made, youth are “sight and sound” separated from adults
  • States make genuine efforts to address and reduce disproportionate minority contact

In exchange for compliance with those requirements, states receive no less than $400,000 in federal funds, and more populous states typically receive millions. Forty-nine states at least try to comply with the act; Wyoming is the lone holdout.

Here are a few noteworthy themes as the effort to reauthorize JJDPA begins anew:

White House Support

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Robert Listenbee attended the Rhode Island hearing this week, and conveyed the Obama administration’s support for reauthorization.

This administration has always supported reauthorization on paper, but it is worth nothing that Listenbee is publicly championing it. The last presidentially appointed OJJDP administrator, J. Robert Flores of the Bush era, did not comment on the act at all in Congressional testimony.

Status Offenders and DMC

Those were the two JJDPA-related issues that received the most attention at the Rhode Island hearing. Two things we could see in Whitehouse’s legislation:

Valid Court Order (VCO) exception: As is, the JJPDA permits a major caveat to its terms on detaining status offenders. A judge is allowed to issue a court order to a status offender, and then detain him for violating any terms of that order.

Expect Whitehouse to include a phase-out of the VCO exception in his bill. House Democrat Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) has already proposed legislation to do this, and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) intimated his intention to do the same in an in interview with a Pennsylvania newspaper.

More importantly, the VCO exception is no longer supported by the very group that got it inserted in the first place: The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Even if a broader JJPDA rewrite doesn’t get off the ground, it seems that at least Democrats will look to remove the exception.

More Teeth for DMC Requirement: Whitehouse and Listenbee both referred to the need for “enhancements” to the DMC requirement, which is a polite way of saying that there isn’t much required at the moment.

So what would enhancements look like? Act4JJ, a coalition of juvenile justice advocates that support reauthorization, suggest six inclusions:

  1. Establish coordinating bodies to oversee efforts to reduce disparities
  2. Identify key decision points in the system and the criteria by which decisions are made
  3. Create systems to collect local data at every point of contact youth have with the juvenile justice system to identify where disparities exist and the causes of those disparities
  4. Develop and implement plans to address disparities that include measurable objectives for change
  5. Publicly report findings
  6. Evaluate progress toward reducing disparities

At Some Point, the Bride Needs a Groom

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not been the barrier when it comes to juvenile justice legislation. The committee marked up and moved reauthorizing language early in Obama’s first term, but nothing was doing in the House.

Former House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) voiced support for and intent to reauthorize JJDPA, but never acted. Nor has his successor, John Kline (R-Minn.).

Without a deal that brings in House support, no movement on the Senate side will amount to much.

Money Talks, and It’s Pretty Quiet in Here

Congress has continued to chop down juvenile justice funding each year. The state formula and block grants – which traditionally made up the biggest JJPDA-related expenditure – has fallen from $140 million in 2010 to $55 million in 2014.

The largest appropriation to OJJDP is now for mentoring programs ($88.5 million) and missing children ($67 million).

The declining funds make a bold reauthorization even trickier, because it will mean tacking on more requirements for states while they continue to see less federal financial support for the juvenile justice system. It could mean some states join Wyoming in sitting out the JJPDA.

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

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Judith Fenlon
About Judith Fenlon 167 Articles
Money & Business Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change