Today, beginning at 10:00 a.m., the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to discuss the proposed reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. I’ve written before about why this is such a big deal. The JJDPA comes up for reauthorization every five years, so this is one of two chances per decade to update and strengthen the federal law that regulates standards and funding for state juvenile justice programs.
This is urgently necessary, for two main reasons: The act as it’s currently written is weak and ineffective and outdated, and besides, federal leaders aren’t even enforcing what’s on paper. Giving the act some teeth would help to realign priorities at both the state and federal level.
This will be, as Campaign for Youth Justice director Liz Ryan explained to me over the phone yesterday, “the first opportunity the juvenile justice community has had in close to a decade to make the case for continued federal leadership and support on pressing juvenile justice issues.”
The speakers who are scheduled to testify include J. Robert Flores, head of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Shay Bilchik, a top advocate who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute; Deirdre Wilson Garton, who heads the Wisconsin State Advisory Group (each state has a SAG that receives and administers federal funds for juvenile justice programs); Ann Marie Ambrose, who directs the Bureau of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Services in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Richard Miranda, chief of the Tucson Police Department.
According to Ryan, we shouldn’t expect to hear much from Flores; this seems fitting to me, since federal leadership on juvenile justice during his tenure has been almost totally absent. The rest of the speakers, however, are leaders in their field who have shown a commitment to strengthening the JJDPA.
Bilchik plans to talk about “the need for a federal presence on appropriations,” Ryan says, and will give some attention to strengthening the core protections of the act: namely, reducing racial disparities at every stage (arrest, adjudication, sentencing, etc.); addressing overreliance on detention, in particular for status offenders; placement of children in adult jails; and the related problem of adult transfers.
Ambrose, who was part of the effort to reduce the unnecessary use of detention in Philadelphia, will talk about model efforts and promising approaches, with a particular focus on prevention programs and alternatives to incarceration. Her testimony, Ryan expects, “will give members an idea of what’s possible, what ideas they can be funding.”
Garton will talk about Title V, the federal grants program that funds, according to the OJJDP website, “collaborative, community-based delinquency prevention efforts.” She may also address disproportionate minority confinement, a problem states are mandated to address* in order to receive federal grants (Wisconsin has one of the worst records on DMC in the country).
[*Note, by the way, that according to the JJDPA states are mandated to “address” DMC, not to “reduce” it. One thing advocates should, and likely will, push for during this reauthorization round is strengthening the language on this precise point so that states aren’t required merely to collect data on overrepresentation but to make a concerted effort to bring it down.]
Miranda, a leader on DMC issues, will talk about efforts he has implemented in Tucson to document police contact with juveniles in order to find out if young people of color are being unfairly targeted.
“This is one of the few opportunities we’ll have to get these experts face time with the members of this committee, to give them a sense of urgency about the juvenile justice issues facing us today,” Ryan explains. “If nothing else, they need to understand that they can play a leading role in this.”
Ryan is hopeful that the hearings will impress upon the senators the pressing need to strengthen the act, but she warns that a bill that’s heavy with new requirements could prompt states to opt out. “I think we should demand a lot from the states,” she says, “but we need to give them the resources to do it. We need a carrot approach, not a stick approach. Strengthening the core requirements, closing the loopholes, tightening it up, and also incentivizing states to adopt best practices and giving them rewards for good policy–that’s how we thread the needle.”
The senators’ colleagues in the House have already held two hearings in recent months on reauthorization; Ryan expects that legislation will be introduced after today’s hearing, and she is hopeful that a strong bill will drop on the President’s desk early next year. I asked her if she thought Bush, who has been increasingly quick to use his veto pen during his second term–and has spoken out against increased domestic spending–would sign it. (After all, the OJJDP’s $700 million budget was totally eliminated under Bush’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2008.) “We can never predict where the President might be on this issue,” Ryan admits. But, she adds, “if this bill gets to his desk it will be a bipartisan bill, and if it is I don’t think he’ll veto it.”
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If you want to contact your senators and encourage them to support this bill, or if you’d like to listen to a webcast of today’s hearings, head to the Act4JJ website.