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By Ellen Richert, intern Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and Abby McNeal, intern for Campaign for Youth Justice
It’s a phrase seldomly heard in today’s politics: “bipartisan support.” That is exactly what the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has in Congress though. Already this year, both the House and Senate have held hearings about the importance of the JJDPA, and expressed commitment to the Act’s reauthorization.
The Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education hosted a hearing February 15th entitled: “Providing Vulnerable Youth the Hope of a Brighter Future Through Juvenile Justice Reform.” During the hearing community leaders spoke about initiatives in their state to assist vulnerable youth, and discussed how Congress can help states and local communities provide at-risk youth with brighter futures.
Among the witnesses was Meg Williams, Juvenile Justice Specialist of Colorado and former CJJ Board Member. She spoke on the importance of the JJDPA and the vital help it provides.
“In Colorado,” Williams said “We have been doing fairly well or at least making positive strides in many areas and you are likely wondering, well do you still need the JJDP Act? Do you still need support from the federal government? I am here to say that the answer is vehemently yes. Our country still needs to have a concerted focus on juvenile justice as the needs of youth appear to be becoming more difficult to address.”
Other witnesses included: Lafayette Police Chief Patrick J. Flannelly of Indiana, The Honorable Denise Navarre Cubbon of Ohio, and Executive Director of YMCA Safe Place Services in Louisville, Kentucky, Matt Reed. All spoke about the success seen from evidence-based programing for at-risk youth in their communities. Witnesses also shared compelling stories of individual youth who received needed services and supports in their home communities, and ultimately turned their lives around. There was consensus that many of the young people who come in contact with the justice system have backgrounds marred with trauma, histories of abuse and neglect, educational disabilities and mental health and substance abuse treatment needs. Matt Reed, shared how the YMCA in Louisville was able to run a highly successful truancy prevention program. Through these services, Reed reported that they effectively cut truancy by 70% and diverted nearly 70 youth away from the justice system. In highly effective juvenile justice systems, youth and their families can gain services necessary to address these underlying issues.
Chief Flannelly, as well as the rest of the witnesses, emphasized the use of community involvement and early intervention prevention: “These intervention programs engage the family, reasserting both family and personal responsibility...This is an important part of fixing the problem, since many of the youth we see are following the footsteps of family members or peers who have previously gone down the wrong road.” Witnesses noted repeatedly that better alternatives are needed to address the underlying issues that can lead to young people acting out. Such programs could be helped by the funding provided in the JJDPA. Chairman Rokita also honed in on the importance of communal efforts, stating that “[g]iven the social and economic challenges facing our country, that’s no small feat. However-- through a collaborative effort among parents, teachers, and local community members-- it can be done.”
A second hearing on JJDPA was held on Tuesday February 28th. This hearing was hosted by the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and was entitled “Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System.” Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have been longtime advocates for reauthorization of the JJDPA. Sen. Grassley said in his statement that he wants “to make a renewed call for Congress to pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, a bill that I introduced with Senator Whitehouse in the last Congress. This measure had 20 bipartisan cosponsors before the 114th Congress adjourned. It would encourage states to rely on policies and practices that reflect the most recent research on what works best with troubled youth.”
One of the witnesses, Dave Kuker, is the Juvenile Justice Specialist in Iowa. He spoke of the progress his state has made as well as the invaluable help the JJDPA has provided. “The JJDP Act has been the cornerstone of Iowa’s progressive, and ever-evolving, juvenile justice system,” Kuker said.
Other witnesses included Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director of Rights4Girls, Jake Horowitz, State Policy Director of the Public Safety Project for Pew Charitable Trusts, and Jinique Blyden with the PACE Center for Girls. All of the witnesses noted that despite all of the work that has been done in the field of juvenile justice, there are still many challenges and dilemmas to be dealt with. There was overwhelming agreement among the witnesses that the need for reauthorization of the JJDPA is absolutely necessary. “Perhaps the most pressing priority today is the need to reauthorize a strengthened Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The JJDPA has not been reauthorized in over ten years, despite the fact that this past decade has seen groundbreaking research on the most effective evidence-based methods to keep children out of the juvenile justice system, in school, and on a path towards rehabilitation,” Vafa said.
Sen. Grassley ended his statement saying that “The goal is to ensure that scarce federal resources for juvenile justice will be devoted mostly to the programs that research shows have the greatest merit and will yield the best results with at-risk adolescents. A coalition of over 100 nonprofit organizations, led by the Campaign for Youth Justice and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, worked closely with us on this bill’s development in the 114th Congress.”
The Campaign for Youth Justice, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and the broader Act4JJ Coalition look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Grassley in the 115th Congress.