by Jill Ward
“It is therefore the further declared policy of Congress to provide the necessary resources, leadership, and coordination (1) to develop and implement effective methods of preventing and reducing juvenile delinquency; (2) to develop and conduct effective programs to prevent delinquency, to divert juveniles from the traditional juvenile justice system and to provide critically needed alternatives to institutionalization; (3) to improve the quality of juvenile justice in the United States; and (4) to increase the capacity of State and local governments and public and private agencies to conduct effective juvenile justice and delinquency prevention and rehabilitation programs and to provide research, evaluation, and training services in the field of juvenile delinquency prevention.”
– PUBLIC LAW 93-415-SEPT. 7, 1974
This, in part, is the originally stated purpose of the landmark federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) signed into law by President Gerald Ford on September 7, 1974. Thirty-nine years later, that purpose still rings true.
Back then, leaders in the juvenile and criminal justice field recognized the need for national leadership to address the all too common practice of jailing children with adults, the overuse of incarceration to respond to non-violent and status offenses, and the lack of alternatives to appropriately meet the needs of young people in ways that helped them and strengthened the community.
Congress stepped up and passed this bi-partisan law to provide policy direction and support for states. Most recently reauthorized in 2002, the JJDPA embodies a partnership between the federal government and the U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia to protect children and youth in the juvenile and criminal justice system, to effectively address high-risk and delinquent behavior and to improve community safety.
It is the only federal law that sets out national standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system, provides direction and support for state juvenile justice system improvements, and supports programs and practices that have significantly contributed to the reduction of juvenile crime and delinquency.
At the heart of the Act are four core protections that states must adhere to in order to receive federal support for their state system. These protections help ensure the health and well-being of youth:
- Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) keeps status offenders, such as runaways and truants, out of secure facilities;
- Adult Jail and Lockup removal (Jail Removal) prevents youth from being placed in adults jails and lock-ups (with limited exceptions);
- Sight and Sound Separation provides that when youth are held with adults (as occurs in limited instances) they be separated by both sight and sound from adult offenders;
- Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) requires that states address the disproportionate contact of youth of color at key contact points in the juvenile justice system – from arrest to detention to confinement.
By most all accounts, the law has been a success. The JJDPA has created a national floor that incentivizes states to embrace these core principles. The federal dollars that flow through the law also help fund both evidence-based programs and promising new innovations and are critical in leveraging other state and local funding to improve state justice systems and reduce recidivism. Without a strong federal law that is sufficiently resourced, we risk losing a major tool to help sustain current protections for youth and to advance additional reform.
Unfortunately, federal funding has been repeatedly cut over the last decade. Federal dollars available to support implementation of the JJDPA and other state and local reforms has steadily declined by 83 percent from 1999 to 2010. And, the recent budget sequestration has further diminished federal investment in states to develop and implement state and local prevention and early intervention efforts that keep kids on the right track and contribute to the prevention and reduction of youth crime and violence.
Ensuring that the JJDPA does not continue to suffer drastic cuts or is not completely defunded is particularly critical to states’ compliance with the jail removal and separation core protections. Although funding has diminished drastically since 2000, the limited funding states continue to receive through Title II of the JJDPA has helped the majority of states comply with the core protections.
Loss of JJDPA funds would be a huge step backward, as many states would have little incentive or ability to comply with these protections, further undercutting policies to keep youth out of adult jails and prisons and other de-incarceration efforts.
Federally supported juvenile justice programs also enable communities to provide critical treatment and rehabilitative services, in safe conditions, that are tailored to the needs of youth and their families; protects public safety; and holds youth accountable. Continued federal cuts will threaten these efforts to keep youth and families safe, and keep juvenile crime rates down.
The 39th birthday of this landmark law is the right time to highlight how far we’ve come and to make sure the purpose laid out nearly 40 years ago this month continues to be advanced and supported by Congress.
Jill Ward, former co-chair of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, is a federal policy consultant for the Campaign for Youth Justice.