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On Behalf of Our Youth: Recommendations for the 113th Congress to Promote Safe Communities

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Today the National Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC), a collaboration of many organizations working together to develop consensus on federal juvenile justice policy, released its recommendations to the 113th Congress, Promoting Safe Communities. As part of the NJJDPC Coalition, Youth Advocate Program, Inc. (YAP) urges Congress to act on these recommendations.As noted in the recommendations:

  • On any given night, approximately 70,000 youth are placed in secure confinement
  • Each year, police make approximately 1 million juvenile arrests
  • Juvenile courts handle roughly 1.5 million cases per year
  • More than 250,000 youth are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system annually
  • 10,000 youth are held in adult jails and prisons per year

These numbers are unacceptable. We cannot be the kind of nation that chooses not to invest in reducing the number of youth in the juvenile and adult justice systems. Importantly, as states and the federal government grapple with budgetary concerns, these Recommendations offer smart investments that are safer and more cost-effective, giving leaders a way to redirect taxpayer dollars away from expensive institutions that cost upwards of $80,000 / year per youth, and back to their communities.

 

The NJJDPC Recommendations offer sensible solutions for Congress to act on several key subject areas, including investment in community-based alternatives to detention, youth re-entry and improving access to mental health services. Each of the subject areas in the Recommendations reflects the NJJDPC's belief that children are resilient, categorically different from adults and have the greatest potential to rehabilitate. Federal policy on youth in the juvenile justice system should be designed with these traits in mind.

One recommendation specifically voices support for individualized, wraparound advocacy services for the highest risk youth, exactly the kind of direct service YAP has been providing to youth and families for nearly 40 years in hundreds of rural and urban communities across this country.

Another recommendation includes passing the Youth PROMISE Act which offers a community-based approach to gang violence. Under the Youth PROMISE Act communities can help gang-involved youth get the support they need to safely leave gangs and help them access healthier opportunities, instead of sending them to detention, jail or prison. We have seen this type of investment in community-based programming work in Chicago, where, with stimulus dollars and in partnership with Chicago Public Schools, YAP was able to reduce shootings and death among gang-involved students determined by the school district as most likely to victims of gun violence. Despite pervasive and escalating violence in their own communities, the youth paired with our community-based Advocates remained 94% safe from gun violence, took advantage of opportunities to work part-time, engaged in peaceful and constructive activities and graduated high school at a higher rate than students who did not receive our services.

Leadership in juvenile justice reform also includes improving access to better mental health services, which the NJJDPC Coalition recommends. Specifically, Congress should advance proposals to help serve high-risk youth with mental/behavioral health needs and expand access to innovative, culturally competent services that can design treatment and support around the individual needs of each youth. As noted in the Recommendations, studies indicate that up to 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, frequently linked to violence they have experienced or witnessed in their families and communities. Congress should also act to end the unnecessary detention of youth who have mental or behavioral health needs by diverting them to community-based programs better-equipped to meet their individual needs.

All of the Recommendations envision the type of robust national Congressional juvenile justice leadership that youth and families deserve. Every day that a child sits in secure confinement or in shackles at a police station, when we can effectively treat him or her in the community, is a day too long. Likewise, the number of youth killed in Chicago and around the country, as well as the tragedy in Newtown should compel us to promote safe communities and act on these recommendations. In partnership with the NJJDPC, we urge Congress to act now to implement these Recommendations.

Shaena Fazal is YAP's National Policy Director and can be reached at sfazal@yapinc.org.

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