09.27.08

On The Failure To Pass The “Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act”

In July, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, an important bill designed to protect our communities and particularly our most precious asset, our children.  I am disappointed that Republican objections continue to prevent this vital bipartisan legislation from passing the Senate this year. 

 

This bill seeks to not only keep our children safe and out of trouble, but also to help ensure they have the opportunity to become productive adult members of society.  Senator Specter and Senator Kohl have been leaders in this area of the law for decades, and I was honored to join with them once again to introduce this important initiative. 

 

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act sets out Federal policy and standards for the administration of juvenile justice in the states.  It authorizes key Federal resources for states to improve their juvenile justice systems and for communities to develop programs to prevent young people from getting into trouble.  With the proposed reauthorization of this important legislation, we recommit to these important goals.  We also push the law forward in key ways to better serve our communities and our children.

 

The basic goals of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act remain the same: keeping our communities safe by reducing juvenile crime, advancing programs and policies that keep children out of the criminal justice system, and encouraging states to implement policies designed to steer those children who do enter the juvenile justice system back onto a track to become contributing members of society.

 

The reauthorization that we consider today augments these goals in several ways.  First, this bill encourages states to move away from keeping young people in adult jails.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded late last year that children who are held in adult prisons commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, when they are released, than children with similar histories who are kept in juvenile facilities.  After years of pressure to send more and more young people to adult prisons, it is time to seriously consider the strong evidence that this policy is not working.

 

We must do this with ample consideration for the fiscal constraints on states, particularly in these lean budget times, and with ample deference to the traditional role of states in setting their own criminal justice policy.  We have done so here.  But we also must work to ensure that unless strong and considered reasons dictate otherwise, the presumption must be that children will be kept with other children, particularly before they have been convicted of any wrongdoing. 

 

As a former prosecutor, I know well the importance of holding criminals accountable for their crimes with strong sentences.  But when we are talking about children, we must also think about how best to help them become responsible, contributing members of society as adults.  That keeps us all safer.

 

I am disturbed that children from minority communities continue to be overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.  This bill encourages states to take new steps to identify the reasons for this serious and continuing problem and to work together with the Federal government and with local communities to find ways to start solving it.

 

I am also concerned that too many runaway and homeless young people are locked up for so-called status offenses, like truancy, without having committed any crime.  In a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year on the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, I was amazed by the plight of this vulnerable population, even in the wealthiest country in the world, and inspired by the ability of so many children in this desperate situation to rise above that adversity. 

 

This reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Act takes strong and significant steps to move states away from detaining children from at-risk populations for status offenses and requires states to phase out the practice entirely in three years, but with a safety valve for those states that are unable to move quite so quickly due to limited resources. 

 

As I have worked with experts on this legislation, it has become abundantly clear that mental health and drug treatment are fundamental to making real progress toward keeping juvenile offenders from reoffending.  Mental disorders are two to three times more common among children in the juvenile justice system than in the general population, and fully eighty percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have been found by some studies to have a connection to substance abuse.  This bill takes new and important steps to prioritize and fund mental health and drug treatment.

 

The bill tackles several other key facets of juvenile justice reform.  It emphas effective training of personnel who work with young people in the juvenile justice system, both to encourage the use of approaches that have been proven effective and to eliminate cruel and unnecessary treatment of juveniles.  The bill also creates incentives for the use of programs that research and testing have shown to work best.

 

Finally, the bill refocuses attention on prevention programs intended to keep children from ever entering the criminal justice system.  I was struck when Chief Richard Miranda of Tucson,Arizona, said in a December hearing on this bill that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem.  I heard the same sentiment from Chief Anthony Bossi and others at the Judiciary Committee’s field hearing earlier this year on young people and violent crime in Rutland,Vermont.  When seasoned police officers from Rutland, Vermont, to Tucson, Arizona, tell me that prevention programs are pivotal, I pay attention.

 

Just as this administration and recent Republican Congresses have gutted programs that support state and local law enforcement, so they have consistently cut and narrowed effective prevention programs, creating a dangerous vacuum.  We need to reverse this trend and help our communities implement programs proven to help kids turn their lives around.

 

I have long supported a strong Federal commitment to preventing youth violence, and I have worked hard on past reauthorizations of this legislation, as have Senators Specter and Kohl and others on the Judiciary Committee.  We have learned the importance of balancing strong law enforcement with effective prevention programs.  This reauthorization pushes forward new ways to help children move out of the criminal justice system, return to school, and become responsible, hard-working members of our communities.

 

This legislation seeks to move the country in new directions to protect our communities and give our children the chance they need to grow up to be productive members of society.  But we were careful to do so with full respect for the discretion due to law enforcement and judges, with deference to states, and with a regard for difficult fiscal realities. 

 

It is unfortunate that, despite the bipartisan nature of the legislation and the careful consideration and consultation that went into drafting it, Republican objections have prevented this important bill from passing and helping to keep our children and our communities safe.  I hope, while there is still time, that all Senators will decide to support and pass this vital reauthorization.

 

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