Policy Priorities

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Juvenile Justice

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The juvenile justice system is often the “last stop” on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline—the crisis at the intersection of poverty and race that puts Black boys born in 2001 at a one in three lifetime risk of going to prison, and Latino boys born in 2001 at a one in six lifetime risk of the same fate—and provides a critical opportunity to intervene and help get children on a more positive track forward toward college, productive work and successful adulthood. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) works to build awareness of the root causes of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and trends that incarcerate our youth. CDF identifies effective youth violence prevention and intervention programs that help young people at every point of involvement in the system—ranging from efforts to divert youths from entering the system by creating more alternatives to imprisonment to supporting a youth’s transition back into the community after a period of confinement. CDF also advocates for the humane and rehabilitative treatment of all children in the juvenile justice system, and ultimately, for systemic reform at the local, state and federal levels to ensure children receive fair and appropriate treatment.

CDF’S Juvenile Justice Priorities

Addressing the Educational Needs of Children in the Juvenile Justice System

With nearly one-half (48 percent) of youths in the juvenile justice system functioning below the grade level appropriate for their age and 30 percent reporting a learning disability diagnosis, compared to 28 and five percent of students in the general population, respectively, children in the juvenile justice system have critical learning needs that must be addressed if they are to get on a more positive track forward. CDF is working in three vital areas to ensure the juvenile justice system addresses children’s educational needs:

Educational Services for Confined Youth: Many researchers and advocates agree that students in the juvenile justice system often do not have access to quality academic instruction and programming while they are in confinement. While the average school day for the general population is six to seven hours a day, only 45 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system spend at least six hours a day in school. CDF is studying the availability and quality of instructive services for the incarcerated youth population and identifying policy recommendations based on model programs and legislation that make a difference in the academic and social development of children.

ESEA Reauthorization: Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a top priority for CDF, and the Juvenile Justice Policy team is working with the Education Policy team to improve Title I, Part D—Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk—to better meet the instructional needs of the students who participate in Part D-funded activities. Learn more about CDF’s education policy priorities.

Out of School Time Learning & Enrichment: CDF Freedom Schools® provide summer and after-school enrichment to help children become engaged with reading, increase their self-esteem and have a more positive attitude toward school and learning. In the summer of 2010, CDF launched three Freedom Schools in juvenile justice settings in Minnesota, Texas, and Washington DC. In 2011 the CDF Freedom Schools program expanded to Middletown, New York. Some juvenile corrections staff noted the benefit for youths who were able to express themselves and feel successful in the scholastic environment. CDF is working to expand the number of CDF Freedom Schools programs in juvenile justice settings in order to give more students access to quality enrichment programs. Learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program.

Removing Children from Adult Jails and Prisons

On any given day, approximately 81,000 children (263 of every 100,000 youths ages 10 through the state’s upper age of origi¬nal juvenile court jurisdiction in the general population) are held in a juvenile justice residential placement. Additionally, 7,560 children are held in adult jails and 1,790 in adult prisons. As noted in the 2007 report of the National Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission, juveniles are at highest risk of being sexually abused while in confinement, and children housed in adult facilities are at an even higher risk of being victims of sexual abuse than the children retained in juvenile facilities. In light of these disturbing findings, the Commission recommended that juveniles be kept in separate facilities from adults. As the Department of Justice moves to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), CDF has joined other children’s and juvenile justice advocacy organizations in submitting comments urging the Department to follow the Commission’s recommendation and remove all children—whether they are in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system—from adult jails and prisons. Download the PREA youth comments report PDF. CDF is working with the Campaign for Youth Justice and other advocacy organizations to support the Department of Justice in keeping young people safe from sexual abuse and other harms caused by housing children with adult inmates. Visit the Campaign for Youth Justice’s website to learn more about their important work.

Securing Federal Resources for Juvenile Justice Reform

The federal government plays a vital role in protecting children in the juvenile justice system and helping to ensure they get the resources and attention they need to get off the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and onto the pipeline toward college, work and successful adulthood. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is specifically tasked with “strengthening the nation’s juvenile justice system and supporting prevention and early intervention programs that can make a difference for young people and their communities.” In monitoring OJJDP and other federal juvenile justice efforts, CDF is particularly concerned about the following:

Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is Long Overdue: First passed in 1974, the JJDPA provides guidance and funding for states to make improvements to their juvenile justice systems and delinquency prevention programs, and requires states to address the over-incarceration of minority children. The JJDPA has been up for reauthorization since 2007 and CDF has worked with other advocacy groups to strengthen state requirements and spur greater juvenile justice reform efforts. Learn more about how to get involved in the JJDPA reauthorization.

Federal Funding for Juvenile Justice Reform Must Be Protected: CDF works to ensure adequate federal funding for juvenile justice programming, which includes supporting local delinquency prevention programs as well as state-wide juvenile justice activities that comply with JJDPA standards. Unfortunately, juvenile justice programming funded through OJJDP was cut in the 2011, decreasing from $423.6 million in fiscal year 2010 to $276 million. The loss of federal juvenile justice funding often results in delinquency prevention programs closing their doors to at risk youths, as federal grant opportunities decrease. President Obama’s 2012 budget proposed juvenile justice funding levels at $280 million. The President’s budget proposal would increase formula funding to states that comply with the JJDPA (View OJJDP's Formula Grants Program Summary), but cut the block grants that monitor state juvenile justice activities (See the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants Summary), as well as mentoring programs. Learn more about the federal budget.

Supporting California’s Senate Bill 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act

The California State Assembly will soon vote on a bill that reforms the practice of sentencing youths to life without parole. Currently, youths sentenced to life without parole will die in prison, and have no mechanism for being considered for parole, or supervised release, even if they turn their lives around after serving a portion of their sentence and repenting for their actions. Children have a greater capacity to change than adults, therefore, their cases should be reviewed if they can demonstrate they have become responsible, moral, and productive adults. Read CDF's Op-ed on Senate Bill 9, "Second Chance at Life".

Partnering with the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition

The National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC) is a collaborative of over 50 children’s advocacy, social justice, law enforcement, corrections, and faith-based organizations working to ensure healthy families, build strong communities and improve public safety by promoting fair and effective policies, practices and programs for youths involved or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. CDF is a member of the NJJDPC and part of the JJDPA reauthorization working group. Meetings are open to the public and are held on the third Tuesday of every month at 1:30 pm in Washington D.C.

Recent Juvenile Justice Reports

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention frequently publishes reports on juvenile justice data that has been collected and delinquency prevention programs that have been evaluated.

Read the Campaign for Youth Justice’s recent report, State Trends, which details the legislative victories from 2005 to 2010 in removing children from the adult criminal justice system. While the trend in the 1980s and 1990s was to transfer more children to the adult system, many states have made progress in turning that tide. More recent research has shown that transferring children to the adult system is not good for children or public safety.

Marian Wright Edelman joined with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, to discuss the current state of juvenile reentry and policies to meet the educational, mental health, and substance abuse needs of the county’s juveniles, and further dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. A report on juvenile re-entry was prepared for Ridley-Thomas’s office earlier this year by Michelle Newell and Angelica Salazar, former masters candidates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who now both work at the CDF on juvenile justice policy. Download the full report commissioned by Ridley-Thomas’s office and edited for the Web, Juvenile Reentry in Los Angeles County: An Exploration of Strengths, Barriers and Policy Options.