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By Starcia Ague
Youth and Family Advocate Program Administrator
Department of Social and Health Services
On February 12, the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)—the nation’s main law that sets standards and protections for state juvenile justice programs—very nearly passed in the Senate. One lone member of the U.S. Senate held up passage of this bill that is more than eight years overdue for reauthorization. This bill make common sense for public safety and for the fairness and effectiveness of state juvenile justice programs. It is crucial that we highlight the importance of this landmark law.
I serve on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, an advisory body made up of members of the Statewide Advisory Groups, which are charged with overseeing the implementation of the JJDPA in the states. In our recommendations, we stated emphatically that, “No piece of legislation has more impact on the future of juvenile justice than the Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).” Originally signed into law in 1974, the JJDPA was most recently reauthorized in 2002, with a few noteworthy changes. Prior to that, the JJDPA was last reauthorized in 1992.
It is time for Congress to update the law. The JJDPA needs a substantial overhaul so it is stronger, more effective and updated with what we know about what works.
The law sets core protections for young people involved in juvenile justice systems. One of these is the Jail Removal protection, which requires states to keep children who are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court out of adult jails or lockups. When this provision was added into the law in 1980, an estimated 300,000 children were being held in adult jails and lock ups. Since then, this core element of protection for at-risk youth has effectively stopped the placement of hundreds of thousands of children in adult facilities every year since its enactment.
Unfortunately, a loophole in the law exists that allows youth charged as adults to be placed in adult jails. Through a JJDPA reauthorization, this unfortunate loophole could be significantly reduced, protecting youth in the justice system from the known dangers of adult jails, and bringing us one step closer to treating children like children.
Another area for improvement is the “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO.” It’s a wonky term for a very important and basic protection that applies to young people whose actions would not be considered offenses if they were adults (called “status offenses”)—for example, skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol. The DSO provision was originally intended to connect these youth to help from the appropriate human services agency in lieu of becoming wards of the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, an amendment to the law made in 1980 — referred to as the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception — has allowed status offenders to continue to be locked up for not following the orders of the judge to attend school every day or abide by curfew, most often for violating a court order; not for committing another status offense. While judges in many states are addressing the needs of these youth effectively without resorting to detention, far too many youth still find their way into the juvenile justice system via a VCO experience.
It is important to note that girls are disproportionately affected by the DSO protection. According to Gender Injustice, girls are much more likely to be arrested for status offenses than boys of the same age, and also tend to receive more severe punishment than boys for the same offenses. For example, while girls make up 16 percent of the juvenile detention population, they make up 40 percent of those incarcerated for a status offense.
Reauthorization of the JJDPA would call for the elimination of the VCO exception, and it could end the use of detention in status offense cases, especially in the case of young girls who are disproportionately impacted.
For these reasons, the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice is calling on the U.S. Senate to reauthorize the JJDPA at the earliest opportunity.
The U.S. Senate is close to taking the first step necessary to getting this done.
Starcia Ague is currently a Youth and Family Advocate Program Administrator with the Department of Social and Health Services at Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation Administration.
This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.
The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.