The time is now to protect our youth

There is a growing effort to protect our most vulnerable youth.  So far this year, legislation has been introduced to reauthorize grant programs that assist runaway and homeless youth. The House, meanwhile, has passed an array of bills that attempt to improve responses for youth who have fallen victim to human trafficking.

While youth advocates are grateful for these efforts, more must be done in order to truly protect our most vulnerable youth. Lawmakers must not overlook the importance of reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).   

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On Dec. 11, 2014 Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's 12:30 Report Hacked computer network mysteriously back online Marketplace for hacked-server sales may be much bigger than reported MORE (D-R.I.) and Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyDozens of senators push EPA for higher ethanol mandate Civil liberties group mobilizes against surveillance amendment Brother may I? Congress must reform senseless drug regulation MORE (R-Iowa) introduced S. 2999, which aimed to reauthorize this landmark federal legislation. Originally approved with broad bipartisan support in 1974, this uncontroversial legislation expired in 2007.  It has not been reauthorized since that time, and is long overdue.

I am grateful to Whitehouse and Grassley for their efforts in the 113th Congress to reauthorize the JJDPA, and am hopeful that they will introduce a similar bill this session to ensure that youth are appropriately protected, states are held accountable, and adequate federal funding is provided.

I have worked as an advocate in the juvenile justice field for nearly 45 years, and was among those who encouraged the JJDPA’s initial enactment. Before this landmark federal legislation was passed into law, it was common practice for children in the abuse and neglect system, and those who were charged with behaviors such as skipping school and running away from home, to be incarcerated in the same facilities, and even the same cells as youth charged with delinquent behaviors or even adults. It was all too common in those dark days for our children to be physically and sexually assaulted as a result of this practice.

The JJDPA has had a profound impact on our country, and we have come a long way since its initial authorization. Children who are in the juvenile justice system can no longer be housed with adult inmates, and the number of young people incarcerated for behaviors such as running away and skipping school, has dramatically declined. We have also seen the vast reduction in delinquency offenses nationwide. Continued strides in this area, however, require a continued commitment from the federal government to provide funding and guidance.

Reintroduction and passage of S. 2999 would help strengthen the core protections afforded to young people in our juvenile justice system. Among other things, the bill, as introduced in December, would ensure that children can no longer be incarcerated for status offense behaviors such as truancy, or being out after curfew. The JJDPA, as originally enacted prohibited incarceration of young people for these behaviors. A later amendment, however, permitted secure detention if a young person violated an order from a judge which required them, for example, to attend school or remain in their home. Nearly half of all states continue to use this exception known a “violation of a valid court order” or “contempt” to jail young people. In fact, in 2012 alone, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that more than 7,000 cases that were brought before the courts for these types of behaviors resulted in confinement.

The bill put forward last session by Whitehouse and Grassley would also further protect children from being placed in adult jails and lockups, and require that states consider and address racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems. It would also ensure that systems use a trauma-informed approach to juvenile justice, an important change as incarcerated youth are far more likely to have encountered trauma in their lives before entering the juvenile justice system.

Since the JJDPA was last reauthorized we have learned a great deal about adolescent brain development. The research has shown that young people’s brains continue to develop into their mid 20s. As a result of this continued development, children and youth often act differently and respond to situations in different ways than older individuals. Our youth are not merely miniature adults and we cannot continue to treat them as such. While much progress has been made, there is more work to be done, and I am hopeful that Whitehouse and Grassley will renew their leadership on this important issue in the 114th Congress and reintroduce S. 2999.

I thank Grassley and Whitehouse for coming together across party lines to serve as leaders on this important legislation. Failure to reauthorize the JJDPA would be a step backwards for our country and would be bad for our youth, and for our country.

Schmidt is a member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s Executive Board. He was among those who advocated for the JJDPA’s initial passage, and continues to be active on this issue.

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