Juvenile justice advocates recently told the House Education and Labor Committee that reauthorization of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) must close loopholes that have allowed some states to treat juvenile offenders like adults.
The JJDPA was originally passed in order to reduce juvenile crime and protect children in the juvenile justice system. The law requires that juvenile offenders be held separately from adults in jails and prisons, removed incarceration as a punitive option for status offenders, and required that states look into why minority youth are imprisoned at a higher rate than White youth.
Treating youth offenders improperly can create significant roadblocks to rehabilitation. Youth confined in adult facilities often do not have proper access to educational or mental health facilities. The Centers for Disease Control has found that due to the conditions they face in prisons and jails, children incarcerated as adults are 34 percent more likely to commit a crime after they are released. The Department of Justice has reported that youth who are confined in adult facilities are eight times more likely to commit suicide, 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon, and much more likely to be raped than youth held in juvenile facilities.
Minority youth have been especially harmed by the juvenile justice system. Michael Belton, deputy director of juvenile corrections for Ramsey County testified that Black, Latino, and Native American youth are all much more likely to be detained than White youth. “While Congress cannot legislate the will to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, it can formulate policy that will have an important impact on the lives of children,” said Belton.
Witnesses offered several key improvements to the JJDPA:
- Data should be collected on youth in order to identify the stages of the system at which youth of color are being intentionally or unintentionally treated unfairly;
- Loopholes that can allow youth to be confined in adult facilities should be removed;
- Strengthen the JJDPA to expand its protections to youth tried in adult courts; and
- Encourage the reinvestment of detention dollars in community-based alternatives to confinement.