Juvenile Justice Reform: What Are We Waiting For?

By Irasema Garza, J.D., Policy Advisor, NCLR

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has worked for two decades on state and national policy platforms to address issues of discrimination and disparate treatment of Latino youth in the criminal justice system, including strengthening the protections under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974.

JJDPA established federal oversight on the treatment of youth in state detention facilities. The act was intended to move young offenders out of adult prison and address racial disparities across the juvenile justice system. Before its enactment in 1974, 300,000 children were moved into adult jails every day.

JJDPA made good strides toward improving the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system, but Congress has failed to reauthorize the act since 2002. In 2012 there were still 95,000 youth locked up in adult jails and prisons, many of them subjected to abuse and solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time.

Latino and Black youth are disproportionately impacted across the juvenile and criminal justice systems and more likely to be incarcerated than White youth, even for the same category of charges. According the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 2011 the national ratio of state incarceration of minorities to Whites was 2.7 to 1.

Senators Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D–R.I.) reintroduced JJDPA in 2014 for reauthorization during the last congressional session. The act was strengthened to add protections including provisions that require states to include ethnicity, in addition to race, when assessing and addressing disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. Juvenile justice advocates expect the senators will reintroduce the act in 2015.

Some states moved forward with reforms to reduce the number of incarcerated kids. Texas, for example, initiated reforms in 2007, in part to address public outcry over sexual abuse and the treatment of youth in Texas facilities. The get-tough-on-crime policies in Texas during the mid-90s tripled youth incarceration, resulting in a 50 percent recidivism rate and leading to what juvenile justice advocates, including NCLR Affiliate Southwest Key Programs, argued was a breakdown of an expanded, overtaxed, and underfunded system that ignored conditions in youth facilities.  A recent study of the Texas reforms undertaken during 2007–2013 found that keeping kids out of jails reduced recidivism rates, maintained public safety, and resulted in substantial cost savings for the state.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is pressing for legislative reforms that would include expanding juvenile jurisdiction to age 18. Currently, New York and North Carolina are the only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal prosecution, regardless of the charge. Similar to national trends, in New York Latino and Black youth have borne the brunt of a dysfunctional juvenile system. Latino and Black youth make up 33 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds in the state but compose 72 percent of those arrested and 77 percent of those convicted of felonies. Further, a staggering 82 percent of youth incarcerated in the state’s adult prisons were young men of color.

In August 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York issued a scathing report on the treatment of and conditions for juvenile detainees in New York City’s Rikers Island detention facility and concluded that the practices violated the constitutional rights of adolescents. According to the report, Rikers Island houses approximately 14,000 inmates, including 791 juveniles; 51 percent of the youth population at the facility had been diagnosed with mental health issues. The report documented a pattern of rampant brutality by staff. During 2012–2013, 40 percent of juveniles had been subjected to the use of force by guards at least once and required emergency medical assistance more than 450 times. The report also chronicled an alarming rate of punitive confinement that extended for long periods of time. One 17-year-old served 110 days in solitary confinement.

In December 2014, the New York Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice found that 16- and 17-year-olds locked up with adults are at high risk of being sexually victimized and more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile detention facilities. In recommending that the state raise the minimum age to 18 for adult prosecutions, the commission cited the success of Connecticut, which years ago raised the statutory age for adult criminal prosecution to 18. That state implemented reforms to steer young nonviolent offenders away from incarceration and into service-based alternatives, thereby successfully reducing the incidence of recidivism among nonviolent youth.

The Governor’s Commission concluded that implementing family, mental health, and other evidenced-based services as alternatives to incarceration for New York State’s 16- to 17-year-old offender population would eliminate 1,500–2,400 crime victimizations every five years. When publically accepting the recommendations of the Commission, Governor Cuomo commented, “This issue has been going on for a long time and we have done a lot of damage.”

Youth beyond New York State have suffered harm because the nation’s juvenile justice system is in urgent need of fixing. States that have instituted reforms to reduce youth incarceration rates have curbed crime without compromising public safety and substantially lowered costs. At the national level there is bipartisan recognition that legislation is needed to accomplish similar goals. In addition to the 2014 reintroduction of JJDPA, Senators Booker (D–N.J.) and Paul (R–Ky.) introduced the “Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2014” (REDEEM), which would give juveniles convicted of nonviolent crimes a second chance to start over.

We have a widely recognized national problem and the rarest of commodities in Washington: broad, bipartisan support for reform. The time to act is now. What are we waiting for?

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