March 18, 1999

The Child Welfare League of America is a membership association of over 1,000 public and private, non-profit agencies throughout the country. Our member agencies serve some three million children, youth, and families every year, many of whom confront significant challenges including adjudication, incarceration or other involvement with the justice system.

As the Early Childhood, Youth and Family Subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee considers juvenile justice legislation for the 106th Congress we urge that fifty percent of resources in any legislation be assured to support delinquency prevention.

In light of recent crime trends showing dramatic decreases in juvenile crime, we urge careful consideration of the growing evidence of the effectiveness of prevention strategies. Each indicator on the Violent Crime Index has shown a decline in rate of occurrence, including a drop of more than 40 percent in the juvenile murder arrest rate between 1993 and 1996. Arrest rates for violent juveniles continue to decline and recently reached their lowest point since 1990. Youth today are no more prone to violence than were teens 20 years ago.

While juvenile arrest rates have declined, public concern has stayed high. This is because the continuing high level and visibility of violence involving our nation’s youth, both as victims and as perpetrators, remains unacceptably high. Every day in America 280 children are arrested for a violent crime. In 1995, law enforcement agencies arrested more than 2.7 million people under age 18.

Most child welfare and juvenile justice observers agree that major change is needed in the delivery of services to children at high risk of juvenile crime and to those youths who have already committed juvenile offenses. The juvenile justice system is overworked and underfunded; it needs appropriate resources to do its job of rehabilitating young people. We need to focus on prevention and meeting the needs of children.

Too many children grow up without adequate family and community support or the opportunity to build productive futures. We need to create a multifaceted response to youth violence that begins by restoring hope for the youngest children in the most troubled communities. At the same time, we need more thoughtful responses to address the problems of juvenile offenders who have records of serious violence. Since a small percentage of young people commit most juvenile offenses, success in helping these young people improve their lives will contribute greatly toward preventing future juvenile and adult crime. Young people in trouble with the law need rehabilitative services that address their problems as a whole.

Examples of effective prevention activities for at-risk and disadvantaged youths include gang diversion; specialized Job Corps, job placement, employment and vocational training, and national and community service; substance abuse programs; special education; specialized family foster care; day treatment; mentoring; family dispute resolution; after-school, weekend, and evening youth programs with academic, vocational, athletic, artistic, and other opportunities for young people. These programs offer life-enhancing alternatives to criminal activity.

Cost-effectiveness analyses of crime prevention programs targeted at young people show that these programs can result in significant savings. Research in California indicated that every $1 spent on prevention programs produced savings of $1.40 to the juvenile justice and law enforcement systems. A recent study by the RAND Corporation suggests that a prevention program of graduation incentives in which at-risk youths would receive scholarship incentives and mentoring services to complete high school and go on to college would result in a reduction of roughly 250 crimes for every 1 million dollars invested, at a cost of only $4,000 for each crime averted. The RAND study found that prevention programs were more cost-effective than “three strikes, you’re out” laws, and that crime arrest rates for participating students were 70 percent lower than for similar students.

In addition to increasing support for sound prevention strategies, the four core requirements in the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) provide critical protections for youths in custody and must be retained in any new legislation. The following are of immediate concern in the current debate.

  • “Sight and sound separation” requires that juveniles may not have (regular) contact with adult offenders. We must not allow “incidental” contact between children and adult inmates, which in many jails will mean that children will be walked down hallways past adult cells and thereby subjected to verbal abuse.
  • “Disproportionate confinement of minority youth” requires that states determine the existence and extent of the problem in their state and demonstrate efforts to reduce it where it exists. In virtually every state, minority youth are over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system, particularly in secure confinement. Current law directs states generally to “address” this issue, without requiring release of juveniles or incarceration quotas or any other specific change of policy or practice. Deleting all reference to “minority” or “race” and instead referring to “segments of the juvenile population” minimizes an important issue, is offensive to many, and hinders efforts to remedy the disparate treatment of minority youth.

We urge the committee to ensure that young people in the juvenile justice system are afforded the rights and protection they are due. Young people, with few exceptions, should be treated as juveniles rather than as adults in the justice system. Careful judicial evaluation should precede each decision about whether a juvenile offender is placed in a locked facility, a community-based program, or a residential program.

Prosecutors should not be the sole decision-makers in determining whether to prosecute juveniles 16 and over as adults. It is our firm belief that judges can best determine whether adult court is appropriate. It is essential that judges maintain this function in juvenile cases.

We urge you to support these recommendations and to work with your colleagues to make sure there is needed reform in the juvenile justice system that focuses on prevention and maintains the core protections for youths in trouble.

For juvenile justice information, contact Tim Briceland-Betts, CWLA Government Affairs Department at (202) 942-0256 or e-mail: