Jailing juveniles

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Monday, December 14, 2009

THE SENATE Judiciary Committee should embrace a bill scheduled for debate on Thursday that institutes needed reforms in how the nation deals with youth who run afoul of the law.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act does not impose federal strictures on state and local entities, but it provides funds for those that choose to comply with the legislation's guidelines. In this way, the Justice Department, which administers the act, can provide incentives to states to comply with what it considers best practices.

Perhaps the most important provision in the legislation is one that calls on states to keep juveniles -- even those charged as adults -- separate from alleged adult offenders. Statistics show that juveniles held in adult facilities are more likely to be attacked, more likely to commit crimes once released and more likely to commit suicide than those held in facilities that house only minors. Even so, the act sensibly gives prosecutors and judges some discretion to detain in adult facilities youths who are charged with the most violent crimes and who pose a significant threat to other juveniles. And it makes accommodations for small or rural communities that do not have separate adult and juvenile facilities as long as youth are held out of "sight and sound" from the adults.

The bill rightly encourages states to eliminate the practice of locking up juveniles charged with status offenses, such as truancy or running away from home. Studies have shown that juveniles and communities fare much better when status offenders are redirected to counseling, mentoring or school-based programs. Under the act, states that now allow indefinite detention of status offenders would have three years to revise their policies in order to continue to qualify for federal funds.

The act also calls on states to be aware of and address the growing evidence that African American and Hispanic youths are frequently dealt with more harshly than their white counterparts. For instance, African American and Hispanic juveniles are much more likely to be detained even for minor crimes than are white juveniles and are much more likely to be tried as adults than white youths who are accused of similar crimes. States that receive federal funds would have to keep records of the race and ethnicity of juveniles who come into the system and how they are dealt with and create a plan to eliminate disparate treatment between minority juveniles and white offenders, if such exists.

Funding these new approaches is not cheap, but it is worthwhile. The bill calls for an appropriation of some $245 million for fiscal 2010, increasing to $442 million by fiscal 2015. To ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent, lawmakers should insist that the periodic progress reports provided by states and an annual assessment by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention be made public.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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