U.S. Senate: Time to stand for youth
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With just days left in the 114th Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Pelosi signals flexibility on size of renewed unemployment payments Lincoln Project reports raising .8 million for anti-Trump efforts MORE has the opportunity to lead the U.S. Senate in passing an important bill for our nation’s youth.  The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) reauthorization is bipartisan legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives this fall, and has received the support of 99 U.S. Senators. 

A more than 40 decades old law, the JJDPA grants states a modest amount of federal funding if they agree to collect data on and monitor four core protections for youth who are in the custody of state and tribal juvenile justice systems. The protections are common sense and include not incarcerating children who have run away from home, broken curfew, or other status offenses; keeping youth out of adult facilities and separated from adult inmates; and ensuring children in the  justice system are not treated differently based on their race or ethnicity.


Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, is one place that has utilized the federal law to implement local practices to improve outcomes for youth, promote safer communities, and save taxpayer dollars. Last year, Kentucky passed SB200, that provides a range of programming options in the community that can help low-risk youth get back on track.   

Recently, I connected with the Champions Program at Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, a preventative community-based service that includes behavioral health interventions that focus on trauma-informed, family-centered approaches for youth at-risk of status offenses.

Through the program, I heard from Lauren, a 17-year-old who had first come in contact with the law for running away when she was 16.  Lauren says, “A year ago was the first time I caught a status charge for [being a] runaway and my judge sent me straight to jail, labeling me a “juvenile offender”. There I learned new things I never should have learned and picked up new habits I shouldn’t have. When I got out of detention, I got into more trouble and ran away again. I think the first time I ran away, they threw me in jail because they thought I was defiant.”

Lauren was then placed in the Champions program, where she is thriving and says, “For the first time in a long time I felt like people cared and people wanted to help me. In treatment I learned that my anger and depression were a lot deeper than I thought.”

The JJDPA reauthorization would update current law to reflect changing practices such as those Lauren experienced in Kentucky. Since the authorization expired in 2007, a lot has been learned in the states about effective, evidence-proven ways to intervene with children who come in contact with the law. States are under no requirement to participate in this law, yet 49 states and 6 US territories currently opt in; signaling support for this important state-federal partnership. 

Children who are impacted by the system may not know about the JJDPA, but they understand clearly how approaches supported by this law benefit their future. Lauren shared,” I’m finally getting good grades and am about to graduate early. I feel successful within myself since I’ve had opportunities for treatment. I now believe I can build a future on the positive things I’ve learned. I hope to be a real estate agent and an inspirational speaker and help other people to never live the life I have.”

The JJDPA matters for young people like Lauren and we hope Sen. McConnell will step up and help all children have the opportunity to experience what Lauren did by passing this bill before the year’s end. 

Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.