There are few bright spots in America’s four-decade-long incarceration boom, but one enduring success — amid all the wasted money and ruined lives — has been the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the landmark law passed by Congress in 1974.
The essence of the act is a set of protections for young people caught up in a criminal justice system built for grown-ups. In the past, juvenile offenders were routinely locked up with adults, exposing them to physical and sexual abuse and making them more likely to break the law again when they got out. The act, built on an awareness that young people are different, offers federal dollars to states that house juvenile inmates in their own facilities or, where that is not possible, keep them strictly separated from the adults. It also bars the counterproductive practice of throwing children in jail for “status offenses” like skipping school, running away or violating a curfew — behavior for which no adult would be punished.
The results speak for themselves. Even as the nation’s prison population has skyrocketed eightfold since 1970, to 2.4 million, the number of juveniles involved in the justice system has dropped by 30 percent since 2002.
Some judges, however, still put far too many youths behind bars by relying on an exception to the status offense rule that allows them to lock up juveniles who have been warned not to reoffend. In 2011, about 8,800 juveniles were detained for status offenses. This continues even though the evidence is clear that young people are less likely to commit future crimes if earlier interventions are based in their communities.
Now the law may be getting a long-overdue upgrade to address these and other issues. On Dec. 11, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced a bill to reauthorize the act for the first time in more than a decade.
The reauthorization would phase out the status-offense exception, increase educational opportunities inside prison and help states reduce persistent racial disparities in juvenile incarceration. Young blacks are still more than four times as likely as young whites to be put behind bars, even though they offend at similar rates.
The bill’s sponsorship is significant: Grassley, who will become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has long been one of the most outspoken foes of efforts to reform unjust sentencing laws and combat the worst excesses of overincarceration. His willingness to step out on this issue is one mark of how successful the law has been — not only at improving the lives of millions of young Americans, but at shaping broader public attitudes about how best to deal with young offenders.
In a survey released in November by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the vast majority of respondents said they would prefer that juveniles in trouble got treatment, counseling and supervision than prison time. More than 8 in 10 said juveniles should never be incarcerated for skipping school or running away.
While prospects for broader sentencing reform are uncertain, Grassley has shown that he understands the importance of a smarter and less punitive juvenile justice system. He should make it a priority in 2015.