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The Root: Slow Changes in Juvenile Justice System

Changes are coming slowly in the youth justice system amid poverty and racial disparity.
Changes are coming slowly in the youth justice system amid poverty and racial disparity.

Cynthia Gordy isThe Root' sWashington reporter.

In 1974 the U.S. Congress mandated the creation of the . Made up of representatives from 12 federal agencies (including the departments of Education, Housing and Development and Health and Human Services), the council's purpose is to synchronize government efforts around improving juvenile detainment facilities and delinquency prevention, making sure that each agency charts the same objectives and goals. This week the council, chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder, convened for its quarterly meeting in Washington, D.C.

"It was a very successful meeting," Melodee Hanes, acting deputy administrator for policy in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told The Root. "We provide the attorney general with the best information possible to address relevant issues ... It's the job of OJJDP to then take those action steps and, on a state level, help states implement the nuts and bolts of what helps generate change."

At the request of Holder, the council presented research and case studies on several priority issues, including the link between school discipline and delinquency, re-entry and college access. Another priority is reducing the vast racial disparities in the juvenile-justice system: African-American minors make up about 15 percent of the general child population but account for nearly 70 percent of children in juvenile detention.

But with more than 30 years of research and data under its belt, I wondered how much change the council is actually generating. With so many socioeconomic factors associated with black youths and crime, such as poverty and high dropout rates, does the federal government's assistance around implementing mentoring programs, cultural-competency training and better data collection work?

"We're not looking at just disproportionate minority contact, but recognizing the whole continuum of the system," said Hanes, adding that their recommendations have involved school and family intervention, housing issues, as well as therapy and treatment — all based on proven programs that have worked. And although the perennial problems may seem immovable, she insists that there have been success stories on a range of issues.

"There are states that keep track of the rate of disproportionate minority contact [with the juvenile-justice system], and we've seen improvement in those rates," she said. "Maybe not as drastic or significant as we would like, but there have been improvements."

Over the years, the council has also spearheaded changes in separating youths from adults by keeping them out of adult facilities, as well as creating alternative penalties for youths who commit status offenses (age-specific transgressions, like truancy) to keep them out of custody.

Despite a desire for drastic progress not only in reducing the number of black youths in the juvenile-justice system but also in preventing them from returning to the justice system as they get older, Hanes insisted that it has always taken holistic and incremental steps.

"The improvements we've made have happened over the 36 years we've been here," she said. "It didn't happen overnight."

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Cynthia Gordy