April 10, 2009
Delinquency and Prevention
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974, now up for Congressional reauthorization, provided states and localities with money, training and technical assistance for badly needed delinquency prevention programs and greatly expanded protections for children who ended up in custody.
Unfortunately, those protections have been seriously eroded since the early 1990s, when states began sentencing more and more children to adult jails. Those young people are at high risk of being raped, battered or pushed to suicide. The numbers show that once they are jailed with adults, they are much more likely to commit violent crimes as adults and become career criminals.
The Senate version of the reauthorized act (the House has yet to move) marks a welcome departure from policies that have increasingly criminalized the nation’s children. It strengthens protections for young people who end up in adult lockups, and it would stop penalizing states that wisely house in juvenile facilities some children convicted in adult courts.
The new bill also fixes some problems that were supposed to be eliminated in 1974, when states were to have ended the all-too-common practice of locking up children who committed noncriminal “status offenses” — like truancy, running away or smoking cigarettes.
For such children, the bill encourages states to use community-based counseling and family intervention programs, which are cheaper and more effective than detention. It also calls for better screening and treatment of children with mental health needs. Those children are over-represented among those in custody.
The bill deserves the full support of Congress, which needs to back up the new policies with money enough to make them work.