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CWLA 2007 Children's Legislative Agenda

Positive Youth Development, Juvenile Justice, and Delinquency Prevention

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  • Reauthorize and strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

  • Build on initiatives to better coordinate and integrate Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare systems. Require a comprehensive examination of the issues impacting the cooperation between these systems, including data collection, information sharing, statutory mandates and fiscal resources, and provide adequate resources for implementation.

  • Strengthen existing language and develop new provisions in the JJDPA and other youth-related statutory provisions focused on reducing disproportionate minority contact and on establishing specific services and treatment for girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Encourage the development of effective models for these youth to enhance strategies for prevention, diversion, and treatment.

  • Strengthen the federal partnership to support state and local needs by ensuring state adherence to performance standards and providing sufficient resources for states and localities to effectively implement the JJDPA.

  • Substantially increase funding for and promote positive youth development, crime prevention, rehabilitation, and alternatives to incarceration as effective strategies to reduce youth crime.

  • Develop and pass new juvenile justice legislation focused on issues related to the confinement of youth, including reducing the transfer of youthful offenders to criminal court, expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment, addressing overly punitive sentences, and strengthening community reentry efforts.


The 110th Congress will consider the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The JJDPA is the primary law governing federal efforts to support effective juvenile justice and delinquency prevention activities. In recent years, leading Congressional proposals have been focused on lengthening sentences, increasing penalties, and reducing protections for offending youth.

The new Congress needs to take a fresh approach that emphasizes more positive and strength-based strategies. Successful prevention initiatives, early intervention programs, rehabilitative strategies, gender specific services for prevention and intervention, alternatives to incarceration, and other similar approaches need to be at the forefront of the juvenile justice policy agenda in the 110th Congress.

The connection between child maltreatment and later involvement with the juvenile justice system is well documented. A growing body of research undeniably establishes the connection between all forms of child maltreatment-neglect, physical, and sexual abuse-and subsequent involvement in delinquency and the juvenile justice system. Additionally, research confirms that these maltreated youth frequently struggle in school and with mental health and substance abuse issues-all of which are often preludes to crime.

The 2002 reauthorized JJDP Act recognized this critical issue and included provisions calling for the establishment of policies and systems to incorporate relevant child protective services records into juvenile justice records for purposes of establishing and implementing treatment plans for juvenile offenders. Unfortunately, real or perceived difficulties with data collection, information management, federal and state confidentiality statutes, agency mandates, and fiscal strictures often preclude these efforts.

Congress must require state and local jurisdictions to comprehensively examine these obstacles and develop improved protocols, policies, and procedures that ensure better coordination between the child welfare, child protection, and juvenile justice systems. Congress must require the Department of Justice to: 1) provide targeted consultation and technical assistance to state and local jurisdictions that address these issues, and 2) expand data collection and research related to maltreated youth involved in the juvenile justice system to effectively implement the provisions of Section 223(a)(26) and (27) of the 2002 JJDP Act. These new requirements must be supported with adequate resources for effective implementation.

Congress should strengthen the federal partnership with states and localities to better implement the JJDPA. They must ensure adequate funding to fulfill the mandates of the Act and better enable states and localities to adhere to performance standards.

The JJDPA provision on disproportionate minority contact should also be strengthened, and incentives and bonuses should be offered to states for reducing disproportionality. Similarly, the legislation and other youth-related policies should include requirements for states to develop and adopt policies prohibiting disparate treatment of girls and LGBTQ youth in placement and treatment, and establishing specific services to ensure these youth have access to the full range of health and mental health services, treatment for physical or sexual assault and abuse, and the benefit of effective strategies for prevention and diversion from the formal court system when appropriate.

Positive Youth Development

Perhaps the single most effective set of strategies for turning young people away from crime and problematic behavior and towards successful adulthood is through positive youth development. Positive youth development is a process that prepares young people to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood through a coordinated, progressive series of activities and experiences that help them become socially, emotionally, and cognitively competent. Research studies show that when young people participate in safe, structured, supervised, and healthy activities, they are less likely to become involved in the high-risk, unhealthy behaviors that can derail positive development.

Congress must significantly expand federal support for positive youth development. The JJDPA reauthorization is an opportunity to do this. The legislation must enhance federal support for positive youth development as a strategy for juvenile justice agencies. Other opportunities include strengthening the youth development provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act, and expanding the 21st Century Community Learning Centers and the Safe and Drug Free Schools program.


Federal funding has been woefully inadequate in promoting positive youth development and supporting youth in turning their lives away from problematic behavior. This has been further exacerbated by recent decreases in federal support to states and localities. Significant increases are necessary to better meet the service and program needs of vulnerable youth.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers-a major federal funding source for afterschool activities and positive youth development-has not had a funding increase in the past five years. Funding for mentoring initiatives-an effective youth development strategy-has been stagnant and recently cut. Juvenile justice programs such as the Title V Delinquency Prevention Grant program and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program have also experienced drastic funding cuts in recent years. Overall juvenile justice funding has been slashed by more than 40% in the last four years.

New Legislation

New legislation is needed to address other aspects of youth violence and crime reduction. As referenced above, legislation is needed on matters related to confinement, including reducing the practice of transferring youthful offenders to adult court, expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment, addressing overly punitive sentences, and strengthening community reentry efforts. As an increasing number of young people go through the juvenile and adult court systems and face incarceration, and as society acknowledges that many of them experience severe behavioral and mental health challenges, the time has come for significant reforms. These issues have been ignored for too long and the 110th Congress must take action.

The practice of transferring young offenders to adult court has increased significantly in recent years, but has not made communities safer, proving the practice ineffective. In fact, research documents that rehabilitative efforts in the juvenile justice system for even the most serious offenders generally results in better outcomes in terms of recidivism than prosecution and sentencing in the adult criminal justice system. New legislation is needed, therefore, to discourage transferring offenders from juvenile to adult court.

Mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral health issues are often root causes of youth involvement with law enforcement. Community protection agencies, such as law enforcement and corrections, must work together with health and human services professionals on prevention programs, early intervention activities, and other support and treatment initiatives.

The trend in recent years to lock up more and more youth for longer sentences cannot continue. As noted above, research shows these approaches are counterproductive. Current sentencing guidelines must be reevaluated to determine their effectiveness, and lengthy sentences must be relaxed where appropriate.

As youth attempt to reenter their communities, many face unstable environments and social stigmas that threaten their likelihood of success. Community reentry services for youth are in dire need of increased resources and improved multi-system practices and coordination. New policies must remedy these problems and ensure sufficient community resources are available for those returning from incarceration. Youth detention facilities and correction agencies must have adequate tools and community-based services at their disposal, including effective reentry programs.

Key Facts

  • In 2005, 1,403,555 children under age 18 were arrested. 1

  • A 2003 census of juvenile offenders showed 96,655 children in juvenile correction facilities.2

  • Low family income has repeatedly been associated with self-reported teen violence and convictions for violent offenses. 3, 4

  • Up to 29% of dependent children engage in delinquent behavior. The risk of delinquency is approximately 47% higher for victims of child abuse and neglect. Dependent youth are arrested more often and begin offending at an earlier age, compared with nondependent youth. 5

  • Nearly one-third (31%) of all violent crime committed by juvenile offenders occurs between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. By comparison, 27% of all violence committed by adult offenders occurs between 8:00 p.m. and midnight. 6

  • Youth of color make up only one-third of American adolescents, yet they represent two-thirds of youth in juvenile facilities. 7

  • Rehabilitative efforts in the juvenile justice system for even the most serious offenders results in better outcomes in terms of recidivism than prosecution and sentencing in the adult criminal justice system. 8


  1. Crime in the United States, 2005. (2006). Available online. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. back
  2. Census of juveniles in residential placement databook. (2006). Available online. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. back
  3. Henry, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Silva, P. A. (1996). Temperament and family predictors of violent and non-violent criminal convictions: Age 3 to age 18. Developmental Psychology, 32, 614-623. back
  4. Farrington, D. P. (1995). Key issues in the integration of motivational and opportunity-reducing crime prevention strategies. Integrating crime prevention strategies: Propensity and opportunity (pp. 333-357). National Council for Crime Prevention. back
  5. Herz, D., Krinsky, M., & Ryan, J. (2006). Improving system responses to crossover youth: The role of research and practice partnerships. The Link, 5(1). Available online. back
  6. Statistical briefing book: Juveniles as offenders. (2006). Available online. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. back
  7. Building Blocks For Youth. (2005, October). No turning back: Promising approaches to reducing racial and ethnic disparities affecting youth of color in the justice system. Washington, DC: Author. back
  8. Ibid. back

CWLA Contact

Tim Briceland-Betts

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