Jay Williams

As a follow-up to the historic passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2018 (JJDPA), the Act-4-JJ Coalition held a Congressional briefing on Tuesday, February 26, 2019, to discuss next steps of implementation for JJDPA and what steps can be taken to improve the still inadequate juvenile justice system further.

Marcy Mistrett, Campaign for Youth Justice, shared the release of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition 116th recommendation guidebook for Congress and provided further details on how to continue to improve the Juvenile Justice System.

As the lead caucus member in the 115th Congress on juvenile justice reform, Congressman Antonio Cardenas (D-CA) spoke about being a strong advocate for Juvenile Justice (JJ) improvements and was outspoken about the problems within the JJ system. He emphasized the need to engage with juvenile offenders concerning the improvements that must be made within the system.

The briefing consisted of four panelists, Naomi Smoot, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Shamelen Henderson, D.D. Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS) Youth Council, and Anahi Figueroas, Juveniles for Justice (J4J) of the Juvenile Law Center along with Jessica Feierman, Juvenile Law Center.

Henderson and Figueroas shared their personal experiences within the Juvenile Justice system. Figueroas discussed the J4J project production Broken Bridges – How Juvenile Placements Cut off Youth from Communities, and Successful Futures, and how it serves as a guide and allows youth to share their journey of encountering the JJ system.

The young people shared their ideas on improvements that must be made in the Juvenile Justice system. They spoke primarily about the lack of oversight and need for evidence-based, developmentally appropriate intervention methods in the community and within juvenile facilities, such as therapy or mentoring programs. The two youth, aged 17 and 19, stated that their biggest concern was the lack of connection with their community that was very obvious once they entered into the Juvenile Justice system. Concerning the lack of connection, they spoke on issues such as inaccessibility of phones which means they are not connected to their families. Youth are being subjected to solitary confinement for months on end and these practices are more harmful than they are rehabilitative as well as developmentally inappropriate.

The changes made to the JJDPA Reauthorization that was discussed included strengthening of Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO), Jail Removal, and Sight & Sound core protections.

Approximately 2000 youth are incarcerated yearly on a Valid Court Order (VCO) due to a status offense (offenses that apply to youth due their age) and now it may not be renewed and should not exceed seven days. Congressman Cardenas is pushing for the removal of the VCO exception, which allows, at the discretion of the judge, for children to be held in a detention facility for status offenses. Some of the crimes discussed were as minimal as an inability to pay a truancy fine but usually are classified as status offenses such as skipping school or running away. He argued that inequitable practice was not in the best interest of incarcerated youth and only can further integrate youth into the prison system.

Another change states will have to implement is the removal of youth from adult jails when they are awaiting sentencing or have sight or sound contact with adult inmates. Smoot stated that through the JJDPA Reauthorization there is a requirement for state JJ facilities to address the racial and ethnic disparities present in the JJ system. Now, states will be required to document and analyze the disparities among the juvenile offender population. Advocates believe this will bring more information to the forefront concerning the disproportionate prosecution of marginalized communities. New data requirements including the number of status offenses petitioned to the court, the average length of stay, number of youth isolated or restrained, and living arrangements when youth are released from secure custody will detail more information on this population as well as hold states accountable; and be accessible to the public.

Further resources for advocacy for improvements within the juvenile justice system can be found at http://promotesafecommunities.org/