We applaud Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDem senator: 'How many lives must be lost before we act?' Sen. Manchin won’t vote for Trump’s mine safety nominee Overnight Regulation: SEC chief grilled over hack | Dems urge Labor chief to keep Obama overtime rule | Russia threatens Facebook over data storage law MORE (D-R.I.) and Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) for their bipartisan leadership in reintroducing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) on Dec. 11, 2014. Before the JJDPA was first passed, in 1974, many children who were arrested for juvenile offenses were detained or held in adult jails.  All too often, boys and girls were placed in the same cells as adults, where they were subjected to both physical and sexual assaults.  These young people were harassed and sometimes forgotten for hours on end.   Many of them were there because they were charged with status offenses, acts which would not be illegal if committed by adults.  They were detained in, and very often committed to, secure facilities for offenses such as truancy, running away from home, and other such acts.

Following their court hearings, children who were adjudicated as having committed juvenile offenses were committed to facilities that were often hundreds of miles from their families.  Familial bonds were loosened or, in some cases, cut, because parents had no transportation or could not afford to travel to see their children.  While there, little or no effort was made to coordinate educational programs with a child’s home school, and treatment programs were few and far between.  There were few community-based programs and hardly any prevention programs.  In the days before the JJDPA, not much research was conducted or made available to juvenile justice practitioners, the public, or state and federal entities.  Instead, all too often, statutes and programs for youth were based on those for adults.  As a result, children were often harmed more than they were helped by the juvenile justice system.  If there were ever a field ripe for reform, it was the juvenile justice system.

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Much of this has changed, thanks to the JJDPA, which in my opinion one of the most important pieces of federal juvenile justice legislation.  The Act established national goals for the juvenile justice system and the treatment of young people.  Among those goals: the deinstitutionalization of children charged with status offenses and the sight and sound separation of children from adult criminals. States could choose to participate in the Act and adhere to these goals.  If they did so, they received federal funds that had to be spent according to the state plans developed by their State Advisory Groups (SAGs).  Local residents were in the best position to know what would work at the state or local level. SAGs empowered them to make decisions as to how to spend the federal funds.

The SAGs were one of the more inspired parts of the JJDPA.  Members of these volunteer boards were appointed by the Governors of participating states.  A diversity of voices, including those of young people, was represented.  Members advised the President, Congress, and federal appointees, as well as their Governors, on juvenile justice issues.  Their first tasks included reviewing state statutes and policies regarding juvenile justice and then determining what changes were needed to meet the Act’s goals.  Proposing such changes and advocating for their implementation were enormous tasks, which, in many cases, still remain. 

Over the years, the JJDPA has been reauthorized to continue its protections and to add new ones. Among these: the removal of juveniles from adult jails and facilities, addressing the disproportionate contact of minorities with the juvenile justice system, and increasing the focus on prevention and community-based programs.  With each reauthorization, there was more information to share with Congress regarding effective programs and research. Research established that community-based programming had better outcomes for youth than incarceration, and cost communities significantly less. In order to provide a comprehensive picture of the states’ efforts to meet the mandates of the Act and to suggest revisions to it, the SAGs formed a national organization, now known as the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), which continues to this day. 

One piece of evidence of this progress: the United States has seen a remarkable improvement in reducing youth incarceration overall. Where once more than 100,000 youth were held in detention centers awaiting trial or confined by the courts in juvenile facilities in the U.S., now, this incredible number of detained or incarcerated youth is down to just over 61,000 kids.

While much has been done, much work remains. We are grateful to Sens. Whitehouse and Grassley for leading the effort to reauthorize the JJDPA in the 113th Congress, and are hopeful that they will renew their commitment to this bi-partisan effort in the 114th Congress.

Carlisle is the founder of what is now the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ). In its earliest days, Carlisle ran the organization out of her home in Maine.