Modest Reform: How JJDPA matters and why it is still not enough

On December 21, President Trump signed H.R.6964 – Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. This law reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) Reauthorization Act. First authorized in 1974, the act ensured certain minimum standards for the treatment of youth in the justice system, banning incarceration for status offenses (such as drinking, which is prohibited only based on the age of the accused) and adopting a requirement that youth incarcerated in adult facilities have sight and sound separation from adult inmates. Since 1974, reauthorizations of the law have included provisions that require states address racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system and incentives for states to use evidence-based interventions to reduce juvenile delinquent activity.

However, despite seeming longstanding federal commitment to the idea that all young people deserve a second chance, the JJDPA had languished, pending reauthorization, for more than ten years. So, when Trump signed the reauthorization act on the coattails of the much anticipated Second Chance Act, juvenile justice practitioners everywhere (myself included) were relieved and elated.

Why the excitement? Well, first, the reauthorization of the JJDPA indicates a renewed federal government commitment to ensure best practices in the juvenile justice system. On the heels of the recently signed First Step Act, it signifies comprehensive bipartisan support for, albeit small, improvements to the justice system on the federal level.

Child in concrete cell
Photo by Richard Ross, attained via www.juvenile-in-justice.com

The revised law mandates that by 2021, all incarcerated youth must be housed in juvenile detention facilities until they have reached the age of majority in their state, regardless of whether they have been charged as a juvenile or an adult.  The new provision addresses an important ambiguity regarding children charged as adults and (with some exceptions) protects them from the dangers associated with being housed in the adult system. In most states the age of majority is 18, however, there are three states where the cut-off is age 17, and a few that are looking to raise the age to 19, 20, or beyond.

The Act has many other noteworthy and important goals, including a focus on using evidence-based practices in treatment, reporting on decision points which exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities, and grant funds for states to use when in compliance with uniform reporting measures.

All excellent, all commendable, all wins. All hard fought, and all will have a sizeable impact on the lives of the 40,000 thousand children currently incarcerated in the United States.

40,000 children currently incarcerated in the United States.

40,000.

As I was reflecting on the fact the US. incarcerates 40,00 children, I was reminded of a question I was asked during my job interview for my role at JPO “what do you bring to juvenile justice work that is unique?” My answer then, as it is now, drives me to work for reforms and improvements to the US justice system. And it’s this:

In my home country of Britain (population 65 million) there were, as of December 2018, 839 children under the age of 18 confined in detention facilities. To put that into perspective, that’s almost the same number of children in detention as in the state of Alabama (810) where the population is only four million. Or put another way, for the US to lock up proportionally the same number of young people as Britain, 90 percent of the US’ currently incarcerated children would need to be released. Immediately.

My point here isn’t to advocate for a specific juvenile incarceration rate (advocates in Britain believe the rate of juvenile incarceration there is too high) but to say that Britain, along with most other European countries, manage to keep almost all their children out of detention entirely and have similar (or lower) rates of juvenile crime than here in the US.

Studies have shown that alternatives to detention can curb juvenile crime and recidivism better than detention. This is, in part due to the significant negative impact incarceration can have on healthy adolescent development. These impacts include:

  • reduced educational achievement,
  • lower employment and earning potential (caused in part by having a juvenile record),
  • formation (or development of) negative peer associations,
  • stigma and labeling, as well as trauma and other mental health issues.

The research is compelling, but the reality of the damage caused by incarcerating children was brought powerfully home by the Richard Ross photo exhibit our office hosted. If you’re in the DC area, the free exhibit is open until March 5th, and you should swing by the Kerwin building on American University’s main campus to see the photos.

Richard’s striking photos, taken of juvenile detention centers, show how poorly we treat children in our justice system. Moving children out of adult facilities is a good legislative step, but Richard’s photos show us that this legislation alone isn’t enough. His photos graphically demonstrate that these facilities often aren’t the rehabilitative or restorative environment we want to believe them to be. It’s easy to see how the negative impacts listed above manifest themselves in the environments he photographs.

The JJDPA reauthorization is good news and a great bi-partisan justice reform effort. However, until we’re prepared to wrestle with the underlying philosophical issue of how the US. uses juvenile incarceration as a tool, we will continue to expose hundreds of thousands of children to unnecessary, and unconscionable harm.

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