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A Modern Proposal

A bill that would change the way states view some juvenile offenders recently came one step closer to becoming law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2015 last week, which will now go before the Senate for a vote. It has both Republican and Democratic support, and the feeling is that it will pass.

The bill was originally developed in 1974 and had four main parts: It sought to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system who ran away from home or skipped school; it said that if a juvenile must be held in an adult jail, he needs to be kept separate from the adult population; it limited the crimes for which a minor can be held in adult jails; and it required that states keep data on the over-representation in the juvenile system of youths of color.

Post-traumatic stress disorder among young people in the juvenile justice system is at rates nearly equal to soldiers returning from Iraq.

The new provisions would do all this and a lot more.

There are specifics, like an amendment that would outlaw putting a pregnant young woman in custody into restraints as she gives birth.

These are seemingly common-sense updates. Like one provision that would not only require states to keep data on racial policing disparities of juveniles but would now require that they do something about it.

But most of all, the new act would direct federal funding to states that emphasize preventative services and rehabilitative programs rather than those that punish kids with "scared straight" tactics, like sending them to jail.

"This new law really talks about trauma-based care and community-based resources," says Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. "We know that the more [youth] who are diverted toward appropriate services, the less likely they'll be to go down the track of corrections."

One scenario that might change is if a young girl ends up in court because she was arrested after she ran away from home or was caught with alcohol. Before, that girl might appear in court and a judge might place her on probation. If she violated probation, the judge might send her to a juvenile jail in hopes that the shock will straighten her out. But the new law would build off recent research that shows that, many times, issues like truancy or early drug and alcohol abuse often stem from community and familial violence.

Under the new provisions, federal funding requirements would create social programs and services that can intervene at the roots of the issue. In some cases, that might come in the form of counseling for mental issues or past sexual assault.

The new bill dedicates nearly $830 million to push states toward intervention-based therapy programs like this.

Generations on the Line

John C. Werden is an attorney in Carroll County, Iowa, in a court that sees everything from parking tickets to murders (although those are rare). He has been around long enough to see young men and women pass through the courtroom who then become parents whose children end up in his court.

"I'm about to where I'm prosecuting their grandchildren," Werden says.

He is a conservative guy, even for rural Iowa. And he knows that a lot of conservatives get upset when they hear talk of preventative services, especially services to help those on their way to jail. "I don't want to see my tax dollars wasted. And if we do spend money, I want to see some payoff," he says.

Part of why he supports the bill is that it brings federal law in line with what most people already know: Post-traumatic stress disorder among young people in the juvenile justice system is at rates nearly equal to soldiers returning from Iraq. And the approach of therapy over punishment has been shown to reduce the anxiety and PTSD symptoms that can lead to recidivism. Werden says, if you ask an officer, or anyone who's been around the juvenile court system long enough to see whole troubled families pass through, it's like the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A Modern Proposal

A bill that would change the way states view some juvenile offenders recently came one step closer to becoming law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2015 last week, which will now go before the Senate for a vote. It has both Republican and Democratic support, and the feeling is that it will pass.

The bill was originally developed in 1974 and had four main parts: It sought to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system who ran away from home or skipped school; it said that if a juvenile must be held in an adult jail, he needs to be kept separate from the adult population; it limited the crimes for which a minor can be held in adult jails; and it required that states keep data on the over-representation in the juvenile system of youths of color.

Post-traumatic stress disorder among young people in the juvenile justice system is at rates nearly equal to soldiers returning from Iraq.

The new provisions would do all this and a lot more.

There are specifics, like an amendment that would outlaw putting a pregnant young woman in custody into restraints as she gives birth.

These are seemingly common-sense updates. Like one provision that would not only require states to keep data on racial policing disparities of juveniles but would now require that they do something about it.

But most of all, the new act would direct federal funding to states that emphasize preventative services and rehabilitative programs rather than those that punish kids with "scared straight" tactics, like sending them to jail.

"This new law really talks about trauma-based care and community-based resources," says Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. "We know that the more [youth] who are diverted toward appropriate services, the less likely they'll be to go down the track of corrections."

One scenario that might change is if a young girl ends up in court because she was arrested after she ran away from home or was caught with alcohol. Before, that girl might appear in court and a judge might place her on probation. If she violated probation, the judge might send her to a juvenile jail in hopes that the shock will straighten her out. But the new law would build off recent research that shows that, many times, issues like truancy or early drug and alcohol abuse often stem from community and familial violence.

Under the new provisions, federal funding requirements would create social programs and services that can intervene at the roots of the issue. In some cases, that might come in the form of counseling for mental issues or past sexual assault.

The new bill dedicates nearly $830 million to push states toward intervention-based therapy programs like this.

Generations on the Line

John C. Werden is an attorney in Carroll County, Iowa, in a court that sees everything from parking tickets to murders (although those are rare). He has been around long enough to see young men and women pass through the courtroom who then become parents whose children end up in his court.

"I'm about to where I'm prosecuting their grandchildren," Werden says.

He is a conservative guy, even for rural Iowa. And he knows that a lot of conservatives get upset when they hear talk of preventative services, especially services to help those on their way to jail. "I don't want to see my tax dollars wasted. And if we do spend money, I want to see some payoff," he says.

Part of why he supports the bill is that it brings federal law in line with what most people already know: Post-traumatic stress disorder among young people in the juvenile justice system is at rates nearly equal to soldiers returning from Iraq. And the approach of therapy over punishment has been shown to reduce the anxiety and PTSD symptoms that can lead to recidivism. Werden says, if you ask an officer, or anyone who's been around the juvenile court system long enough to see whole troubled families pass through, it's like the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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