March 10 & 11, 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 Congress considers juvenile justice legislation again this year, CWLA urges close scrutiny of the issues raised in recent proposals, especially in light of recent crime trends and increasing information about the value of prevention and early intervention. The most recent crime data highlighted that in 1997, for the third year in a row, the total number of juvenile arrests for Violent Crime Index offenses–murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault–declined. Evidence also continues to mount that early intervention and treatment can be successful and cost-effective in preventing and reducing crime.

We firmly support early intervention and treatment as the best juvenile crime prevention policy. 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 families and communities. At the same time, we need more thoughtful responses to address the problems of juvenile offenders who have records of serious violence.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) provides federal leadership in juvenile justice, encouraging community-based alternatives to incarceration and requiring states to deinstitutionalize status offenders and nonoffenders and remove youths from adult jails and lockups. The law is based on the premise that a separate system of courts and intervention services is needed to serve the vast majority of delinquent youths.

One major problem with the juvenile justice system is that it incarcerates youths who would have been better served by community-based rehabilitative services. Most youths sent to correctional facilities should not be there. A U.S. Department of Justice analysis of 28 state corrections systems found that less than 14 percent of the youths committed to these facilities were detained for serious or violent crimes. More than half of those in the facilities were serving time for property or drug crimes and were experiencing their first commitment to a state institution. Another study found that an average of 31 percent of juveniles housed in state facilities could be placed in less secure settings and at much less cost to taxpayers based on objective public safety risk factors.

We should invest in proven and promising strategies for intervention and the rehabilitation of young people in the juvenile justice system. We should expand programs that help at-risk and disadvantaged youths succeed and reduce the chance that they will be involved in violence. Such 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 prevention and treatment programs; special education; specialized family foster care; day treatment; mentoring; family dispute resolution; and after-school, weekend, and evening youth programs with academic, vocational, athletic, and arts exploration to provide supervised learning opportunities for young people. These kinds of programs offer life-enhancing alternatives to criminal activity.

In addition to increasing support for sound prevention strategies, the four core requirements in the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act 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: