If House Really Wants Role on Juvenile Justice Reform, It Has Options

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday entitled “Juvenile Justice Reform in the Modern Era.” They heard from juvenile justice officials in Georgia (Joe Vignati), Indiana (Devon McDonald), Liz Ryan of Youth First and Jim SaintGermain, a young man from Haiti who entered New York’s  juvenile justice system and now oversees his own mentoring organization.

Only a few Republican members of the committee attended, but one of them, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), asked the question of most probative value. Beyond the existing federal commitments to states under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), “what do you think the federal government should be doing to assist states to take action and innovate” in juvenile justice?

It didn’t really get answered by the panel. Vignati credited JJPDA funds with helping fuel Georgia’s reform, and then Ratcliffe turned to other questions. Here’s an answer to Ratcliffe’s question, based on Youth Services Insider‘s coverage of this hearing and recent policy talk.

The committee heard yesterday from two states where juvenile justice reform was led by Republican governors. At the heart of both reforms was an intentional effort to drive down the number of juvenile offenders who were incarcerated after assessments determined them to be low- or moderate-risk. Everything else done in the reform of Georgia’s and Indiana’s systems started with, and is made possible by, the savings from this action.

This is the point at which the feds can leverage a small amount of funds to incentivize reform in states: by offering some form of incentive grant for states to realign around a continuum with less incarceration and more community programming.

Both Georgia and Indiana were helped along, at least in part, by the ever-dwindling amount of federal funds tied to JJDPA compliance and by foundation support for the reforms. But a lot of states use the JJDPA funds for existing programs, and foundations can’t seed reform in every states.

This is the pitch that was carried to Washington late in the Obama administration by Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice, who ran New York’s probation department and, before that, the D.C. juvenile justice system. With Annie E. Casey Foundation CEO Patrick McCarthy, he penned an argument in 2016 for the closure of all large juvenile justice facilities in the country.

In discussing the federal role in this after he and McCarthy held a discussion of the paper at the Justice Department, Schiraldi told YSI that he and other advocates would push the new administration to “start a fiscal incentive to reduce and then close youth facilities. Much in the way the ’94 crime bill gave money to build youth prisons.”

“A lot of states have taken a big budget hit,” Schiraldi told YSI back in October. “They have to start up community programs first, but they can’t do that and run the old facilities.”

For systems in that scenario, he said, “a small federal investment might do it.”

And if Congress ever wanted to go big on juvenile justice reform in the modern era, there’s always the Youth PROMISE Act, a bill authored and championed for years by former House Judiciary member Bobby Scott (D-Va.). This would allocate funds to communities affected by high rates of violent crime to first develop a plan to prevent youth violence, and then implement it and evaluate it. The legislation gives communities a wide berth to build the plan around a youth development framework.

Early iterations of this bill included billions of dollars. In recent years, Scott has worked to tack a very modest version of PROMISE to attempts to reauthorize the JJDPA.

Another bill on the table, authored by Judiciary member Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), would reauthorize the once-massive and now non-existent Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG). That funding stream used to complement the JJDPA funds with money states could use to for everything from restorative justice and graduated sanctions to building juvenile facilities.

JABG used to be authorized at $350 million per year; the actual appropriation for it dwindled in recent years and then went away completely. Jackson-Lee’s bill would reauthorize it at $25 million a year.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John Kelly
About John Kelly 1136 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.