House lawmakers urged to fund juvenile justice programs

House lawmakers urged to fund juvenile justice programs
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Advocates for incarcerated youth urged House lawmakers Thursday to reauthorize federal legislation to fund treatment programs and reform the juvenile justice system.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which Congress passed in 1974, was last reauthorized in 2002. The law established core protections and mandates for states regarding the treatment of children in the system, authorized federal state grants, provided funding for delinquency prevention and created an office to oversee juvenile justice programs.

“JJDPA has been a game-changer in the juvenile justice field,” Steven Teske, chief judge of the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia, told members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Seeded by federal funds from JJDPA, he said, the programs decreased the average daily detention population in Clayton County by 83 percent, reduced the number of youth in state custody by 77 percent and reduced the county’s juvenile crime rate by 62 percent.

But because 13 years have passed since Congress issued a reauthorization, Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottCBO: Pelosi bill to lower drug prices saves Medicare 5 billion Democrats divided on surprise medical bill fix NYC teacher suing DeVos over student loan forgiveness program MORE (D-Va.) said the guidelines on how Congress should appropriate funds for programs under JJDPA are no longer in effect even though the law technically still is.

“We had a rude awakening in the House earlier this year when the appropriations bill, appropriating money for the department of justice, zeroed out multiple accounts under the act,” he said.

Without a current reauthorization to point to, Scott said lawmakers were unable to amend the appropriations bill to include some funding.

Not only would a reauthorization provide funding, he said, it would give Congress an opportunity to reform the current system. He asked Teske what could be done in juvenile court to reduce recidivism. According to Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), incarcerated youth are 26 percent more likely to return to jail as adults.

Because the adolescent brain is different from the adult brain, Teske argued, juvenile court judges have to be more patient than those in criminal courts.

“They are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “I’m not saying they are stupid, because they have a great capacity to do wonderful things, but we can destroy that capacity if we use a hammer to beat them up. We need to take the system and slow it down.”

Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime, said Congress should seriously consider removing the valid court-order exception under JJDPA that allows for juveniles to be jailed for status offenses — like truancy or running away, which are not traditionally criminal offenses, but still land a juveniles behind bars.

“Not only does this confinement of status offenders cost precious resources and limited juvenile compliant bed space, it also fails to address the root cause that triggered that offense in the first place,” he said. “Further it suggests that the state’s roll is to intercede with disciplinary issues traditionally reserved for family and the community.”