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Building a Bipartisan Base for Safer and Smarter Juvenile Justice Policies

In the past two weeks, Congressional leaders took important steps to play a more catalytic role in advancing safe and smart youth justice policies, building on the bipartisan support that exists in the states to reduce reliance on incarceration for young people, and the research that shows locking up more youth doesn’t make us safer.

“We know that when the federal government chooses to, it can play a key role in helping in helping states, counties, cities and schools safely and smartly embrace more effective youth development policies,” said Marc Schindler, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute.  “JPI applauds our federal policymakers who are building on the role they played in state-based juvenile justice reform efforts, and who are taking on the tough but critical job of building a bipartisan base for these policies in Congress.”

On Thursday, Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D- CA) and Dave Reichert (R-WA) officially launched the bipartisan Congressional Youth Development and Crime Prevention Caucus. The launch event for the new caucus included prosecutors, sheriffs, and youth justice experts who support practices that will improve public safety, and help young people transition to adulthood. Cárdenas and Reichert will co-chair the new caucus, which includes long-time juvenile justice reform champion Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Congressman (and Judge) Ted Poe (R-TX). 

“The most important thing we can do in Congress is to protect the future of our nation,” said Cárdenas. “I want to help my colleagues understand why crime and violence impacts kids throughout our nation, how we can stop it, and how we can turn them toward choices that allow them to reach their potential and live a fulfilled life.”

Congressman Cárdenas has an impressive track record in advancing safe and smart juvenile justice practices in the states. As JPI profiled in the report Cost Effective Youth Corrections: Rationalizing the Fiscal Architecture of Juvenile Justice Systems, the Schiff-Cardenas Crime Prevention Act sponsored by the then California Assemblyman Cardenas played a critical role in supporting services for young people as communities reduced reliance on incarceration.

The new Congressional Youth Development and Crime Prevention Caucus was launched just weeks after Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced the Better Options for Kids Act of 2014 (BOKA). The bill seeks to rupture the school to prison pipeline by supporting states with policies that “improve educational continuity and limit juvenile court involvement and incarceration for youth.” The legislation incentives states and school systems with targeted funding to limit court referrals, limit police officers in schools, support training to reduce expulsion, encourage promoting community-based alternatives, and support re-entry for young people returning to the community from custody.

As JPI reported this week in the Just Policy Blog, the legislation is being supported by a diverse spectrum of justice system stakeholders, including prosecutors, judges and young people directly impacted by the juvenile justice system.

The legislation also reflects the findings of the JPI report, Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut, which showed that there are better ways to improve community safety than needlessly referring youth from schools to the justice system. The report profiles many of the policies now Sen. Murphy supported when he served for eight years in the Connecticut General Assembly.

“I’ve always believed that while standing up for kids in the juvenile justice system isn’t always politically popular, it’s incredibly important,” says Sen. Murphy. “Connecticut should be proud of its unyielding commitment to improving the system to keep our most vulnerable youth safe and give them a second chance. By taking bold steps that put kids and evidenced-based policies first, Connecticut has become a nationwide model for reform.”

These new federal salvos into the justice debate come as new research published by JPI partner Youth Advocate Programs Policy & Advocacy Center (YAP) calls on state and city policymakers to redirect taxpayers’ dollars to less expensive, more effective community programs that improve public safety by better supporting youth and their families and keeping youth close to home. YAP’s report draws research on how they scaled up programs to serve youth in Republican-led states, like Ohio and Alabama

“We can redirect the precious dollars we are currently spending on youth prisons and create real opportunity for all young people – and help these youth steer clear of crime, and successfully transition to adulthood,” said Jeff Fleischer, CEO, Youth Advocate Programs, an international nonprofit committed to community-based alternatives to out-of-home care. “We need the U.S. Congress to take the lead from the states we are working in to advance safe and smart juvenile justice policies, and serve more young people in the community.”

Key resources from the Justice Policy Institute.

Key resources in the field.

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