In Beltway, Juvenile Justice Convo Moves from “What Not to Do” to “What to Do Instead”

Youth Services Insider was on hand for this week’s Congressional briefing on community-based strategies, hosted jointly by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and the Harrisburg, Penn.-based Youth Advocate Programs.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), who hosted the event, joked that he was preaching to the choir as he spoke to a crowd packed into the public area of a small committee room in the Cannon House Building.

Indeed, the crowd was littered with juvenile justice advocates who were not particularly in need of persuasion on the value of community alternatives. More important to the organizers were the handful of new faces, mostly young staffers sent to report back to Congressional bosses on the session.

“Someday, I hope we need the biggest room for this meeting,” Cardenas said.

After more than a decade of foundation-led advocacy to lower state and local reliance on detention centers and prisons for juvenile offenders, the focus of Capitol Hill advocacy is slowly moving away from limiting lockup and toward promoting community-based juvenile justice programs.

It is not a coincidence. YAP is operating community-based juvenile justice programs in nearly 20 states, and in 2013 established a policy shop based in the Beltway.

“Our presence in D.C. is really to advocate for redirection of dollars away from costly and ineffective institutions, and toward communities,” said YAP Chief Executive Officer Jeff Fleischer, at a 2013 launch dinner for the Policy and Advocacy Center.

NCCD is a nationally known research and advocacy organization that is also involved in efforts to expand community-based alternatives in Oakland, Calif., one of its home bases. It established a D.C. office a few months ago.

Both organizations crafted policy papers with support from the Public Welfare Foundation, and this week’s briefing was an early step in promoting that work.

The four presenters at the briefing laid out a basic argument for community programs: Incarceration has been exposed as an ineffective juvenile justice strategy, and several states have already drastically reduced their reliance on it. Meanwhile, results from programs such as YAP and other community providers demonstrate success.

So why continue to favor the former over the latter?

Two more subtextual points made alongside that argument are familiar to anyone who has attended a D.C. juvenile justice briefing:

  • You can increase community options without incurring additional costs by lowering juvenile incarceration rates. By way of example Judge Denise Cubbon of Lucas County, Ohio, described how the county redirected funds to community services by reducing its detention center population from more than 100 down to 15.
  • The deep end of the system is disproportionately inclusive of minority youths. Researcher Angela Irvine shared details from an NCCD study that suggests the proportion of incarcerated youth who are minorities has risen as overall incarceration figures have declined.

What can Congress do on this issue? The panel did not get very specific on that. YAP Policy Director Shaena Fazal mentioned two pieces of juvenile-related legislation in the Senate: The Better Outcomes for Kids Act, and the REDEEM Act.

The first of those bills is aimed at keeping youths out of the juvenile justice system in the first place. The REDEEM Act proposes to improve the back end of the system by automatically seal or expunge the records of certain juveniles and limiting the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

One piece of federal legislation that could usher in new federal support for community-based alternatives to incarceration is the Youth PROMISE Act, a bill authored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). In a nutshell, it would provide planning grants for communities interested in lowering youth violence, and then follow with implementation grants for said plan.

It has been a long while since Youth Services Insider heard tell of the bill. It came very close to passage as part of a broader law enforcement package before the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010. It briefly gained momentum again in early 2013, as talk turned to gun control and school safety after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

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

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