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May 01, 2015

Bipartisan juvenile justice legislation Introduced in Senate with strong support

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has not been reauthorized since 2002, and Senate Judiciary Committee Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are looking to change that with the introduction April 30 of S. 1169, a bill to extend the act through 2020.

First enacted in 1974, JJDPA provides crucial support for state programs that help communities take a comprehensive approach to juvenile crime prevention and address the needs of vulnerable youth and their families early and effectively. The JJDPA supports delinquency prevention programs to improve state and local juvenile justice systems; a juvenile planning and advisory system in all states; and operation of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) dedicated to training, technical assistance, model program development, research and evaluation, and support of state and local efforts.

The ABA has made JJDPA reauthorization a priority for this Congress and focused on the issue in April during ABA Day, the association’s annual lobbying event on Capitol Hill.

In addition to reauthorizing the legislation, S. 1169 includes provisions supported by the ABA to phase out “status” offenses − such as skipping school or underage tobacco use − for which juveniles are jailed, and to require states to implement steps to reduce racial and ethnic disparities among youth in the criminal justice system. S. 1169 also includes new provisions to: increase the focus on youth with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders; support training for juvenile judges; and enhance oversight of JJDPA grant funding.

In an April 30 statement, Whitehouse said the bill would not only protect children in custody, but also give them a chance to improve their lives. “Every child has a future,” Whitehouse explained, “and we are all best served when kids in the juvenile justice system have appropriate opportunities to get back on track, rather than being marginalized and falling further behind.”

One concern expressed prior to the bill’s introduction was accountability and oversight of JJDPA grants – a topic examined at an April 21 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Grassley, presiding over the hearing, explained that there are some who believe that the Justice Department and OJJDP do not enforce the requirements of JJDPA consistently with the states. S. 1169, according to Grassley, would improve transparency and accountability of JJDPA grant funding by creating “measures to tackle fraud and waste so that our youth can benefit from the programs’ full potential.”

“We must remember that the true victims in all of this are the children and youth who face inadequate juvenile justice systems,” Grassley explained.

JJDPA reauthorization legislation has not yet been introduced in the House, but the House Appropriations Committee approved fiscal year 2016 appropriations legislation for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies this month that would eliminate appropriations for the primary JJDPA grant program, which is currently funded at $55 million. 

Grassley expressed his disappointment with the House committee’s appropriations bill in a press release on May 14. “My colleagues in the House should recognize the need to adequately equip our communities with tools to respond to youth who have brushes with the law,” he said. “These are kids who need help, and it’s unreasonable to leave these programs out of the picture altogether.”

Whitehouse emphasized that S. 1169 “could put a real dent in the school-to-prison pipeline and send an important message to kids, particularly those in poor or minority communities disproportionately affected by the system, that we care about them and want them to succeed .” The proposed funding “sends the exact opposite message at possibly the worst time in recent history,” he said.

Both senators pledged efforts to assure that final appropriations include adequate funding for JJDPA.

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