Senators Introduce JJDPA Bill

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Herb Kohl, the senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill yesterday to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the key piece of federal legislation guiding juvenile justice funding and management in the states.

The JJDPA, as it’s called, comes up for reauthorization every five years. Technically speaking, it doesn’t need to be reauthorized; if it’s not, the law remains on the books as it’s currently written. (It’s already past due.) Alternatively, it could be reauthorized without any changes at all, or watered down. The opportunity, then, is to update and thereby strengthen the provisions of the act. This is urgently necessary, for two main reasons: The act as it’s currently written is weak and ineffective, and besides, federal leaders aren’t even enforcing it. Adding some muscle to the act would help to realign priorities at both the state and federal level.

The reauthorization campaign has been a long time coming (for background, see the Juvienation backlog on this subject and visit the Act4JJ website), and it’s got a ways to go. But the introduction of this legislation, and the lead role taken by Leahy, a prominent supporter of smart juvenile justice reform, are promising signs. From the committee’s press release:

The proposed legislation would increase federal funding for prevention, intervention and treatment programs designed to reduce incidence of juvenile crime. The bill strikes a balance between providing federal support and guidance to state programs and respecting the individual criminal justice policies of states. The bill urges states to make key improvements to juvenile justice systems, and addresses concerns about pretrial detention of youths in adult jails and about detention of children who commit status offenses like truancy by establishing meaningful guidelines, procedural protections, and restrictions. The legislation also prioritizes and funds mental health and drug treatment for juvenile offenders, and encourages states to further address the overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system. Finally, the bill supports the efforts of states that attempt to comply with the core requirements of the JJDPA by making funds available through improvement grants to help bring states into compliance with the Act.

“With the reauthorization of this important legislation, we recommit to the important goals of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Protection Act,” said Leahy. “We also push the law forward in key ways to better serve our communities and our children. After months of research and discussions, Senator Kohl, Senator Specter, and I believe we have found a way forward toward creating a system that will work more effectively to protect our young people.”

“Despite the nationwide recognition of the importance that role models and mentoring play in youth development, there remains an unfortunate shortage of programs devoted to stemming youth delinquency,” Specter said. “Through mentoring and other programs, this Act will help to prevent delinquency and promote rehabilitation, so that young offenders are less likely to become stuck in the criminal justice system. I am pleased to be a cosponsor, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to pass this legislation.”

“Juvenile justice programs help prevent crime, strengthen communities and give kids a second chance to succeed and lead productive lives,” Kohl said. “This legislation responds to the immediate needs of communities throughout our nation facing the problem of juvenile delinquency by increasing federal resources. I applaud Senators Leahy and Specter for working with me to unveil this bill that will bolster and expand juvenile justice initiatives, provide hope for millions of at-risk children and address the roots of crime.”

Some advocates have suggested, I think astutely, that the bill is not likely to pass during the current legislative session. That’s my guess, too: there’s simply not much happening in Congress during the election cycle, certainly when it comes to domestic spending. But the introduction of this bill has put it on the legislative agenda and will give senators something tangible to consider when it comes to juvenile justice reform. Reauthorization may still be a ways off, but it’s coming.

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