Grassley: Juvenile justice system needs reform

Justice 1By U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley


Each night of the week, around 60,000 young people’s heads hit the pillows in a juvenile detention facility. In communities across America, these youth are in state custody for committing offenses that have brought them into the juvenile justice system.

Sometimes detention is necessary. But it can often be better to try to resolve the problems that bring at-risk youth to the local courthouse door for adjudication in the first place. Countless court officers, attorneys, youth advocates, educators, allied professionals and foster families at the state and local levels seek to steer young people away from unlawful misconduct and harmful behaviors toward better life choices. A network of social and legal services exists to help at-risk youth finish school and make positive contributions to their neighborhoods and communities.

For the last 40 or so years, the federal government, through the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), has provided guidelines and resources to help the states serve troubled adolescents in their local communities. The 1974 federal law provides juvenile justice dollars to states and sets four core requirements for those who choose to participate in this federal grant program.

Participation in the JJDPA’s state formula grant program generally provides each participating state a minimum of $325,000 per year to help fund the development of more effective juvenile justice programs and systems.  This funding is supposed to be conditioned on each participating state’s compliance with four core criteria, which include:

• avoid detaining status offenders, defined as minors who commit offenses – such as skipping school, running away from home or breaking curfew, alcohol and tobacco laws – that would not get them jailed as adults;

• keep many juveniles out of adult facilities;

• keep minors out of “sight and sound” of incarcerated adults; and,

• reduce the disproportionate contact of minority youth with the juvenile justice system.

For violent offenders, jail time is a necessary tool to protect public safety and hold lawbreakers accountable. For less serious offenders, some states are taking the innovative approach of enrolling youth in community-based supervision and substance abuse treatment programs rather than detention facilities.  Research suggests that such alternatives to detention can yield effective results that help steer these juvenile offenders away from a life of crime.

For generations, teenagers have tested the boundaries as they mature through adolescence.  Joining gangs, using illegal drugs and pursuing other risky behaviors are the result of poor choices that make it even harder for at-risk youth to climb the ladder of opportunity.

It’s in society’s best interest to steer at-risk kids onto the right path and stay the course. Policymakers need to balance public safety with society’s expectation that the next generation will become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Since Congress last renewed the law more than a dozen years ago, there is evidence that a few provisions need to be strengthened. For example, whistleblowers have reported the Justice Department has failed to hold states accountable for failing to meet the requirements in the law for receiving federal money.  After I wrote four letters to the Department concerning this allegation, the Department admitted to having in place since 1997 a compliance monitoring policy that allowed states to receive grants in violation of funding requirements.

Congress bears constitutional authority over the federal purse strings. And when Congress disburses tax dollars, I try to follow the trail to make sure tax dollars are spent as intended.  Juvenile justice dollars disbursed under Title II Formula Grants are not an entitlement. By law, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency is required to cut the state’s funding by 20 percent for the following year, for each core requirement that a state violates in the previous year.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have put reform and renewal of the juvenile justice law on the committee’s docket. My committee conducted a congressional hearing in April. Witness testimony recounted violations of law, mismanagement and waste of limited juvenile justice grant funds, in addition to retaliation against whistleblowers.

That’s an injustice to taxpayers and the children and youth who face inadequate juvenile justice systems in their home states.  It’s also an injustice to the kids who end up in the juvenile justice system as a result of a poor experience in the foster care system, another area I’m working to improve, as the co-chairman of the Caucus on Foster Youth.  As National Foster Care Month, May is an opportunity to recognize the intersection of juvenile justice and foster care.

For these reasons, I am advancing bipartisan juvenile justice legislation with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island with stronger oversight and accountability provisions.  In addition, our bill would:

• boost the core protections for youth in the juvenile justice system;

• improve conditions for detained juveniles;

• incorporate new science on adolescent development;

• increase transparency and reporting requirements by detention facilities; and,

• help ensure incarcerated minors will continue pursuing their education.

Shortcomings in the juvenile justice system won’t be solved overnight. I look forward to taking the lead on bipartisan solutions in the 114th Congress that will make measurable improvements to help make a difference in the lives of troubled youth.  Raising visibility on this issue and raising the bar of expectations for young people are the right steps to take to help our next generation lead productive, prosperous lives in American society.