The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 11, 2017

Federal leadership joins states in seeking needed updates to juvenile justice

Last month, with the support of Speaker Paul Ryan and legislators on both sides of the aisle, the House passed a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). First passed in 1974 and most recently reauthorized in 2002, the act provides for the operation of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and federal support to state and local efforts to strengthen juvenile justice services.

In the 15 years since the last reauthorization, research has increased our understanding of what prevents youth involvement with the justice system, improves outcomes for system-involved youth, and increases public safety. This evidence provides a valuable framework to assess the reauthorization legislation, which now awaits a vote in the Senate.

This proposed legislation would align national leadership on juvenile justice with evidence on effective interventions with youth, an effort that has been spearheaded by state leaders across the country. Among other things, the bill would make three important updates to the core requirements and state plans for receiving federal funding, ensuring federal support for best practices around the country:

1. Phase-out use of valid court orders to detain youth for status offenses.

States across the country have found that holding youth in secure facilities for status offenses (behaviors like skipping school or running away, which wouldn’t be considered crimes if committed by adults) does not foster public safety or better outcomes for youth and their families.

About half of states do not use secure detention for youth who’ve committed status offenses. Leaders in states that do, like Utah and Kentucky, have prohibited or limited the use of secure detention for status offenders. If passed, the reauthorization bill would tighten requirements regarding the deinstitutionalization of youth with status offenses and phase out the use of valid court orders, with some exceptions.

2. Update Disproportionate Minority Contact protection to promote action.

Even as juvenile incarceration declines sharply around the country, evidence shows that racial disparities in the juvenile justice system have grown in recent years. Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure custody increased 15 percent.

As of 2013, black youth are four times more likely to be committed to custody as their white peers. Since its inception, the JJDPA has acknowledged this disparity as a priority for reform, requiring data collection on disproportionate contact at every point of the system.

The reauthorization legislation would go further, requiring a work plan to address disparities, including measurable objectives for policy and practice. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and Models for Change have published guidelines for race and ethnicity data collection in 2008 to accomplish this goal, expanding understanding of better practices to address disparate actions and results in juvenile justice. Utah also prioritized disproportionality in their juvenile justice reforms this year, collecting extensive data around racial disparities and putting forth recommendations to address the wide racial gap in the state.

3. Prioritize developmentally appropriate and evidence-informed practices.

Recognizing research on adolescent development and what improves outcomes for youth, the legislation includes general provisions requiring jurisdictions to take into account the latest knowledge on developmentally appropriate approaches for adolescent treatment and behavior, prioritizing evidence-informed approaches.

National initiatives like Juvenile Justice Reform and Reinvestment demonstrate the increased demand for proven strategies, incorporating the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol to guide program improvements on the ground. Urban Institute researchers documented these efforts across three sites, summarizing drivers of success in implementation.

Recognizing the value of evidence-based programs and treatment, Tennessee has required that all juvenile justice programming funded by the Department of Children’s Services be certified as evidence based, either through established protocol or through scientific evaluation that demonstrates improved outcomes. In 2016, the state strengthened these requirements to include reports to the governor and legislature on outcome metrics to ensure the state invests in strategies that work best for youth and their families.

Additionally, with funding from OJJDP, Urban Institute researchers are working with stakeholders on the ground to get a better sense of what they need to support the implementation of developmentally appropriate, proven strategies for youth.

The JJDPA reauthorization legislation under consideration is backed by research on effective strategies for prevention and intervention in juvenile justice. States across the country have led the way in implementing smarter policy and practice that aligns with what improves outcomes for youth and families. Federal leadership on this issue could strengthen those efforts and expand on progress at a national level.

Juvenile residents sit at a table in a new career guidance center at the Department of Juvenile Justice's Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, in Atlanta. Photo by David Goldman/AP.

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