Federal Spending to Improve Juvenile Justice Gets a Nudge in the Right Direction

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Federal funding for juvenile justice is “moving in the right direction” after over a decade of steady declines, say advocates working to improve juvenile justice programs so they are fairer and more effective.

On Dec 15, Congress passed a $1.1-trillion spending bill to keep the government funded. Included in this “omnibus bill”—so called because it contains 12 appropriations bills funding everything from health care to commerce—are funding levels for many of the programs that child and youth advocates care about, including juvenile justice.

“This budget proposal represents a positive first step to providing states with the resources necessary to address the needs of young people who come into conflict with the law, and of those who are already embroiled in our juvenile justice system. While significant work remains to be done to ensure a fair, effective and developmentally appropriate system, including reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, this is a powerful statement of intent by legislators to do what’s right by all of America’s children,” Marie Williams, Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit that supports better, fairer justice programs.

The spending bill includes some increases in federal funds for state juvenile justice programs. A few highlights:

  • The bill includes $58 million for Title II (Title 2), which helps states promote delinquency prevention and comply with core requirements designed to protect children by keeping status offenders out of locked custody;  removing youth from adult jails and keeping them sight and sound separated from adults; and addressing the disproportionate representation of youth of color in the justice system. Title II of JJDPA supports state compliance with these core protections and helps states to build effective prevention and intervention systems.  The current Title II funding is $55.5, so this is an increase—the first in 5 years. 
  • Funding for tribal youth doubled from $5 million this year to $10 million in FY2016.
  • There is new money to improve juvenile indigent defense: $2.5 million.
  • Funding for mentoring held steady at $90 million.
  • Funding to address issues specific to girls in juvenile justice doubles from $1 million to $2 million.

“These increases are very exciting, and there is real need for this funding in states,” says Naomi Smoot, Senior Policy Associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Advocates are less enthusiastic, however, about some of the provisions in the spending bill. While the bill includes a $2.5 million increase in funding for Title V— one of the only, federal programs specifically designed to prevent delinquency at the local level—the funds are entirely earmarked, or carved out for specific programs.

Furthermore, Congress did not restore funding for the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants (JABG) program, which was designed to improve justice systems by giving judges, probation officers and other decision-makers leeway to use alternative sentences, including restorative justice approaches. The program was ended when it was defunded in January 2014.

Overall, however, advocates are cautiously cheering a long-awaited increase in funding that states can use to put in place reforms to juvenile justice that connect more young people to opportunities to get back on track, reduce youth incarceration and address the disproportionate involvement of minorities (including Tribal youth) in the system;  as well as addressing the unique needs of the growing population of girls --—especially girls of color—entering juvenile justice.

While the Final FY2016 appropriations amount is lower than the funding levels approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this year, it is significantly higher than the initial House proposal which zeroed out all funding for juvenile justice tied to JJDPA and JABG funding.

Sarah Bryer is the Executive Director of The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), a national network of state-based juvenile justice reform organizations.  “We are so happy to see that the Congress is moving in the right direction on juvenile justice funding.  This funding is critical to supporting fair and equitable juvenile justice practices for youth, families and communities throughout the country," Bryer says.

Here's an at-a-glance summary of funding in recent years. Click to see the full-size version.


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SparkAction.org’s Caitlin Johnson wrote this summary, working with Marcy Mistrett and Jill Ward of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.