What the Federal Government Could Do to Spur Juvenile Justice Reform

Young advocates speak at a rally for the Louisiana Raise the Age campaign. Photo: Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights

In late July, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s campaign circulated a proposed criminal justice plan. It specifically referenced juvenile justice, which might be the only time that subject has come up thus far in the 2020 election. Biden, who did protect the juvenile justice budget quite a bit during his time as a Delaware senator, called for $1 billion to be spent on juvenile justice reform.

That would more than triple the amount the federal government currently spends on juvenile justice, most of which flows through the recently reauthorized Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Passed in 1974, the act essentially swaps federal formula grants for state compliance with several core protections for children who come into contact with police and courts. The funding attached dwindled over the past decade, prompting a few states to opt out of the act.

A $1 billion line item could certainly give the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) some relevance in seeding change on the state and local level. Biden didn’t break out that amount into purposes, but a group of juvenile justice advocates were happy to make some recommendations.

The National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition this month circulated a document to all of the Democratic candidates with a litany of suggestions for how the federal government could influence juvenile justice reform. You can click here to read the letter, along with the full list of categorized ideas. Here are a few that jumped out to Youth Services Insider:

  • A $100 million competitive grant program for systems that want to close youth prisons and repurpose them for non-correctional purposes. YSI would note here, it is very smart to add the repurposing component to that idea.
  • The removal of jails and prisons as allowable projects under the Department of Agriculture’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program.

    Democratic candidate Joe Biden proposed spending $1 billion in federal funds on juvenile justice as part of his criminal justice reform plan.
  • Moving OJJDP from the Justice Department to the Administration for Children and Families, the branch of Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees child welfare, Head Start and many of the other family-oriented federal programs.
  • Fully funding Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education, also known as Youth PROMISE. Once its own legislative proposal with billions attached, PROMISE was recently added as a component of the JJDPA and seeds the planning and implementation of youth violence prevention strategies. Full funding of it would mean just under $100 million per year.
  • Grant and technical assistance support to help states eliminate mandatory and discretionary transfer laws, the biggest pathways for youth ending up in the adult court system.
  • Establishing a funding stream that helps state and local systems invest more in community-based juvenile justice strategies, including restorative justice programs.
  • An incentive program to help states rethink and end fines and fees associated with juvenile justice involvement, which have been shown to leave some families with crippling debt.
  • Increased funding under the Second Chance Act to fund re-entry programs for youths returning home after a period of incarceration, and increased funding for job training and support under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act.

There are dozens of other ideas included, and it’s worth a read. In YSI’s humble opinion, a strong federal push to assist states in rolling back transfer laws could be a big game changer. As many states have raised the age of their juvenile justice systems to include older teens, one of the consistent sticky wickets is just figuring out how the shift in money will work to accommodate the change.

Changes in transfer laws carry the same challenge, since ending them would like presage an increase in juvenile court-involved kids (at least in the short term). An injection of federal dollars to help grease the skids, and remove that concern, could allow a system to take this on solely as a policy question without worrying as much about immediate financial consequences.

Other possible ideas for a bigger federal investment/role in juvenile justice that we’ll throw out there:

  • A grant program to seed or support non-incarceration alternatives to probation violations
  • A mental health block grant for outpatient alternatives to incarceration
  • Small grants that states could use for regular review of juvenile cases involving children in foster care
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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1108 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.