The federal government is poised to make a big cut to funding for state and local juvenile justice programs. That is bad news, given that the purpose of these programs is to help states comply with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. This Act was the first major federal legislation to shape state policy on juvenile justice. Its goals were to remove juveniles from adult facilities and to end the practice of sending both criminal and noncriminal minors to prison-like facilities for rehabilitation. Before the Act was enacted, many juvenile courts did not think twice of throwing minors into adult prisons for long periods of time without tailoring the sentence to the juvenile crime or giving the minor due process. That still happens far too often in Texas and elsewhere, and now it is about to get worse.
Federal aid for juvenile justice programs already had sunk by more than 50% to its lowest level in over a decade. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which represents state advisory committees in Washington, D.C., asked Congress to appropriate $80 million for “formula grants” to help states comply with mandates, $65 million for a Title V Delinquency Prevention Program, and $30 million for juvenile accountability block grants. The House appropriations committee responded by cutting the programs to $33 million, $65 million, and to nothing respectively. The elimination of juvenile accountability block grants could be especially damaging, since they are used by states and local governments to give juvenile justice officials a range of options for holding minors accountable that take into account their age and ability.
The more government-friendly Senate intends to provide a budget for these programs that is close to $300 million. But by the time the House and Senate agree on a budget (if they ever agree — or, if more typically, they reach a stalemate while the programs twist in the wind), the number is likely to be lower than the current $263 million budget.
Why are juvenile justice programs vulnerable to cutting? Possibly because they have been too successful. Juvenile crimes such as drug possession are down, so the reasoning is that the government no longer needs to ensure that juveniles get a fair break, or have the opportunity to enter a program tailored to their needs. Everyone has learned their lesson since 1974, and no one will never make the same mistakes again, right?
Wrong. As stated before, the same mistakes are still happening, though perhaps not on as great a scale as nearly four decades ago. Kids are still thrown in adult facilities for juvenile crimes. Too many minors need a criminal defense attorney to ensure that they have basic due process. At a time when prisons are overcrowded, and states are discovering that treatment programs are a viable solution for adult crimes, it is a shame that the federal government’s attitude is to make those alternative solutions less available for young people. Congress can tell itself that juvenile justice programs are not worth it, and the relatively tiny amount of money it saves (consider how much those programs cost compared to the defense budget) is worth it. Meanwhile, an untold number of minors face a more uncertain future.