Let Georgia Remain a Leader

Please raise your hand if you are familiar with something called the JJDPA.  Okay, you, sir, in the back with the red shirt, you can put your hand down and go get a coffee.  All the rest of you who didn’t raise your hands, please read on.  

The JJDPA, also known as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, is a piece of federal law that has been hanging around since 1974.  The Act is important because it creates guidance and standards around how children, youth, and families are treated when they come into contact with the juvenile justice system, as well as how the juvenile justice system should work to improve public safety and decrease victimization.  The Act is administered by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).  The law functions through federal-state partnerships which involve policy, governance, technical supports, metrics and money.

In a nutshell, the Act currently categorizes standards (and often related funding) into four categories, known as Core Requirements or Core Protections:

1. Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) 

  • “A status offense is a noncriminal act that is considered a law violation only because of a youth’s status as a minor. Typical status offenses include truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, underage use of alcohol, and general ungovernability.” (OJJDP)

2. Adult Jail and Lock-Up Removal (Jail Removal) 

  • “Youth may not be detained in adult jails and lock-ups except for limited times before or after a court hearing (6 hours), in rural areas (24 hours plus weekends and holidays), or in unsafe travel conditions. This provision does not apply to children who are tried or convicted in adult criminal court.” (Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ))

3. Sight and Sound Separation

  • “When children are placed in an adult jail or lock-up, "sight and sound" contact with adults is prohibited…children cannot be housed next to adult cells, share dining halls, recreation areas, or any other common spaces with adults, or be placed in any circumstance that could expose them to threats or abuse from adult offenders.” (CJJ)

4. Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC)

  • This refers to “…the disproportionate number of minority youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.” (OJJDP)

Our state, which in many ways is leading the country in juvenile justice reform, draws in well over a million dollars in JJDPA funds each year for remaining in compliance with the core requirements.  We use those monies to pay for grants for courts to provide evidence-based therapies to children who are at medium to high risk to reoffend in hopes of preventing them from reoffending.  The goal, of course, is to serve children in their communities and reduce out of home placements, which is better for kids and better for the public. 

All that is well and good, but the last time the bill was reauthorized, it was 2002.  I don’t know if you remember 2002, but that year brought with it Men in Black II, Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, and the birth of my son (clearly, the most important event of the year).  What has happened since then?  Not only have we seen Men in Black 3, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and my son’s thirteenth birthday, but what we know now about child behavior and brain development has increased exponentially.    (Click here if you’d like to read about childhood trauma)

It is true that the current JJDPA has allowed states to advance juvenile justice reform; however, there are a few more up-to-date (read: scientifically appropriate) policy changes under consideration.  Here is a summary of each:

U.S. Senate Bill 1169:  This bill would reauthorize the Act, strengthen the core protections and add a number of provisions, some of which pertain to youth access to counsel, the special needs of system-involved girls, the effect of violence and trauma on youth, and increased attention to supports for reentry of youth to their schools, post-detention.  Status:  The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has not yet been called to the floor for a vote by the full Senate.

U.S. House Resolution 5963: This bill is similar to Senate Bill 1169 (above), but there are a few differences.  For instance, H.R. 5963 attempts to address gang activity by considering prevention and rehabilitation.  It also includes provisions to better accommodate pregnant youth offenders.  This bill was just passed by the House of Representatives on September 22, 2016.  It now goes to the Senate for consideration.  It remains to be seen how the House and Senate will negotiate the two similar bills.

Proposed Rule Changes to the current JJDPA:  Just in case neither of the bills above are reauthorized, the folks at OJJDP are proposing changes to some of the administrative rules which fall under the current JJDPA.  They are attempting to strengthen compliance of core protections as they pertain to the formula grants administered by JJDPA.  While a number of stakeholders have expressed support for the intent of the changes, they also believe some of the specifications need clarification and alteration in order to be attainable in a meaningful way.  OJJDP has asked for comments from the states and stakeholders by October 7.  Georgia will be submitting comments, but they are not yet public.  Note that passage of either of the bills above would essentially make these proposed rule changes obsolete.

“Wow.  That’s kind of wonky!” you say.  Well, yes, it is.  But it is important nevertheless because the JJDPA is really the only piece of federal legislation that specifically targets our juvenile justice system.  Plus, the policy in the new bills, if passed and signed into law, are very likely to continue to move reform forward, helping children and families on both sides of the law to lead fulfilling and productive lives.