The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act: Protecting Kids, Protecting Communities – Youth Voices Call on Congress to Act
By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow
On April 20th, the Act 4 Juvenile Justice Coalition (ACT4JJ) hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill about the importance of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has been due for reauthorization since 2007. The panel, “JJDPA: Protecting Kids, Protecting Communities” primarily focused on a proposed change to strengthen one of the JJDPA’s core protections for children in custody—the phasing out the valid court order (VCO) exception to the deinstitutionalization of status offenders requirement. A status offender is a child who is not charged with a crime, but rather someone who is arrested for childhood misbehavior such as running away from home, skipping school, or speaking back to an adult.
Years of research on evidence based practice and new developments in brain science and adolescent development have shown that incarcerating a child for a status offense creates trauma and can increase the likelihood of future risky or even criminal behavior. Despite this knowledge, 7,000 children are still incarcerated each year for committing status offenses.
The panel featured Judge George Timberlake from Southern Illinois and Jerry Walsh from Arkansas who has run youth emergency shelters, group homes, and programs for serious youth offenders. Both unequivocally called for juvenile justice systems to keep children who have committed status offenses out of youth prisons and instead keep them close to home, with supports, to more effectively address the reasons for the risky behavior. Two young women, Ashley Jackson from Tallahassee, FL and Jhanae Burnett from Minneapolis, MN, joined the panel to discuss community based alternatives that helped them get back on the right track. Ashley Jackson is a graduate of BoysTown USA in Tallahassee. Ashley had been in 15 foster homes before she was incarcerated for running away from several of those placements. She says, “No one listened. Not once. I went to detention for six months which made me aggressive, hostile and less trustworthy. But BoysTown fought for me. They were the first place that made me feel like they wanted me there. They listened to me.”
Jhanae shared, “I was never a bad child. I worked and was in school, but was having some transitions at home and got arrested”, explained Jhanae. She said that at her first court hearing, the judge wanted to put her on probation and send her to a scared straight program at a women’s prison to teach her a lesson. Fortunately, her family moved and the district she was moved to embraced a more community-based approach and placed her at a program at the YMCA. This program connected Jhanae with other young women a girls-specific program. She was matched with a mentor who helped her with education, work goals, and housing assistance. Jhanae shared, “I got off probation and never saw my probation officer again. But Stacey [her mentor] is still there in the community with me.” Indeed, Stacey flew with Jhanae out to Washington to be part of a youth-fly in advocacy day to encourage federal support of juvenile justice programs that work. Both Ashley and Jhanae are attending college now.
These young women were joined by Daniel Mendoza from Oakland, CA’s CURYJ program (Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ). Daniel met with several Members of Congress to share how working in his community helped him get on the right path. CURYJ trains formerly incarcerated youth in community organizing and entrepreneurship. Daniel proudly relayed how CURYJ opened a coffee shop that only employs formerly incarcerated youth—and how this community program helped him and others stay on the right track.
What was abundantly clear from all the panelists and youth that joined the discussion that day, was that black and brown youth bear the brunt of incarceration for status offenses and that there are much more effective ways to deal with youth misbehavior than incarceration. The speakers, urged the packed room to join the movement and reauthorize the JJDPA THIS YEAR.
You too can Join the movement ! Ask Senator Tom Cotton to release the hold on the JJDPA reauthorization so it can pass the Senate and move onto the House of Representatives for a vote. Each voice counts! Here are a few tweet samples you can use:
- 70% of Americans support requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. @SenTomCotton, pass S1169 now! #JJDPAmatters
- 83% of Americans support investment in community-based alts to incarceration. @SenTomCotton should listen and help pass S1169 #JJDPAmatters
- 83% of Americans think youth SHOULD NOT be locked up for status offenses like skipping school or running away: @SenTomCotton #JJDPAmatters
- Hey @SenTomCotton: 92% of Americans think its important the JJ system help young people get back on track. S1169 would do that #JJDPAmatters
- @SenTomCotton 73% of Americans say teaching youth to take responsibility for their actions does not require incarceration #JJDPAmatters
- Two-thirds of Ark's incarcerated youth did not commit a violent offense. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters
- Arkansas children are among the most likely to be sexually victimized while incarcerated. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters
- The time is now to pass the JJDPA and stop incarcerating our children for skipping school @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters
- We need to get JJDPA through the Senate. Release the hold @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters
- We need a strengthened #juvenilejustice bill to protect our most vulnerable youth. Get JJDPA through the Senate @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters
- We need to get JJDPA through the Senate. Release the hold @SenTomCotton! #JJDPAMatters
- Arkansas can do better @SenTomCotton and so can the US. Release the hold on JJDPA! #JJDPAMatters
- Two-thirds of Ark's incarcerated youth did not commit violent offenses. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters