Appropriations and juvenile justice

As Congress weighs how to spend federal dollars in 2016, it is essential that they not overlook our country’s most valuable and vulnerable resource: our children. 

In years past, federal funds have helped states finance programs that serve children who are, or are at-risk of becoming, involved in our juvenile justice system. These programs help build stronger futures for our young people, families, and communities by providing children with the supports they need to become successful adults.

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In Illinois, for example, federal funds have been used in part to make a grant to the City of Chicago. This funding helped support the work of the Mayor’s Commission for a Safer Chicago, a collaboration that brought together more than 130 city staff, community and faith leaders, practitioners, subject matter experts, parents, and youth to update the city’s plan to address youth violence. The strategic plan that was created from this effort focused on five issue areas – youth employment, health and healing, creating restorative school communities, safety and justice, and safe spaces and activities; and resulted in 28 recommendations designed to address those issue areas. Among those recommendations is continued involvement and expansion of Bridging the Divide, a program that aims to improve police-youth relations, an initiative that has become increasingly important in light of recent public outcries across the country and in Chicago. 

The Mayor’s Commission has undertaken a number of initiatives that aimed to reduce youth incarceration. Among these was One Summer Chicago Plus (OSC+), which connects young people who are at a higher risk for violence involvement with a 25-hour per week summer job, a mentor, cognitive behavioral therapy, and social skill building. A comprehensive, peer-reviewed study published late last year showed that this unique program significantly reduced violence and juvenile delinquency by almost 50 percent for at least 16 months after the program ended. In 2014, the City employed 1,000 youth through its OSC+ program. In 2015, thanks to a $10 million investment from Inner City Youth Empowerment, LLC, the program expanded to serve 2,300 youth, and will further expand to 3,000 youth in 2016.     

Research shows that community-based supports like mentoring, skills training, and other diversion programs cost less financially and are better for our communities. Children who are provided with community-based services instead of incarceration are less likely to come back into contact with the justice system at a future date and avoid exposure to the many traumas that can result from being placed behind bars.

It is essential that we continue to invest in juvenile justice. However, in recent years, federal funding for these programs has decreased substantially. As a result, some states and communities have been forced to reduce the scope of the services they provide, and in some cases eliminate them entirely.

In FY2002, when the JJDPA was last reauthorized, the federal budget included $546.9 million for juvenile justice programs. In FY2015, that number had plummeted to $251.5 million, a reduction of 54 percent overall. A large portion of those cuts came from the zeroing out of the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG) program. In FY2002, this funding stream alone provided $249.5 million in federal dollars to the states. For the past two years though, no federal funds have been allocated for JABG.

Some states and communities have been harder hit than others by these cuts. Iowa, for example, has seen a 68 percent reduction in juvenile justice funding through federal block and formula grants since the start of the decade. South Carolina, meanwhile, has seen its federal allocations for formula and block grants drop by 80 percent, from $1.43 million in FY2010 to $312,434 in FY2014.

Our children and their futures cannot afford to have these cuts continue. The time is now to ask Congress to ensure that juvenile justice programs receive the funding that they need in FY2016.

Smoot is senior policy associate for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a membership organization that represents state advisory groups across the country. Vickery is the Juvenile Justice specialist for the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. 

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