The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was first authorized by Congress in 1974 to establish universal standards for how kids are treated in the youth justice system. With a strong emphasis on supporting prevention-focused programs, rehabilitation, and reintegration while still holding kids accountable for their behaviors, the JJDPA quickly became recognized as one of the most significant laws for kids involved in the justice system.

On December 11, 2018, after passing through the U.S. House and Senate with broad bipartisan support, the JJDPA was reauthorized as part of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA) of 2018 and signed into law.

The JJRA made significant changes designed to support a continuum of evidence-based or promising programs, preventative services, and treatment services that meet the needs of every child who comes in contact with the youth justice system or is at risk of doing so. It also puts stronger measures in place to prevent states from jailing kids for status offenses, or actions only deemed illegal because of the individuals age, such as skipping school or running away from home. It also limits the number of days kids can be jailed for violating court orders.

JJDPA’s Core Requirements

To be eligible for federal funding, states must comply with the four core requirements of the JJDPA. These core requirements help establish a minimum level of safety and equitable treatment protections for kids involved in the youth justice system.

1. Identify and reduce racial and ethnic disparities among justice-involved kids, by collecting and analyzing data at each decision point (such as police interaction, prosecution, and sentencing) to determine where the disparities begin, and creating a measurable plan for policy and systems changes based on the needs identified in the data.

Why is it good for Kentucky kids?

In Kentucky, Black kids are overrepresented at every negative point of the youth justice system, despite not committing more crimes than their White counterparts. As was recently shared by Kentucky’s Department for Juvenile Justice Commissioner, Denny Butler, in Jefferson County alone, Black kids make up more than 90% of the total youth justice population despite making up less than 30% of the county’s total youth population. The Administrative Office of the Courts and the Department of Juvenile Justice have successfully measured racial disproportionality across decision points in recent years, but changes to the JJDPA will take it a step further and hold systems accountable for reducing disparities within the youth justice system.

2. Kids who are charged as adults cannot have sight or sound contact with adult inmates, and

3. Kids who are charged as adults cannot be incarcerated in adult facilities.

Why is this good for Kentucky kids?

Research shows that incarcerating kids with adults is dangerous, as they are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and it increases their likelihood of negative outcomes, as they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. It’s important to acknowledge that Kentucky has successfully eliminated both practices, instead detaining any child who is charged as an adult in a juvenile facility until they are at least 18 years old.

4. Keeping kids who have committed a status offense out of detention unless they have violated a valid court order (VCO). If the court determines that a child should be incarcerated for violating a VCO, a written order will be issued that documents how it came to that conclusion along with a timeline for releasing kids within 7 days.

What is this good for Kentucky kids?

If a kid is arrested for running away from home, a Judge can no longer incarcerate them. However, if a Judge orders the kid to not run away anymore and they do, the Judge can incarcerate them for up to 7 days for violating a VCO. It’s not a perfect system, but it will keep kids from being incarcerated for weeks for violations that can range from being caught with tobacco products to getting a C when the Judge ordered all As and Bs.

In 2013,  more than 900 kids were incarcerated in Kentucky for status offenses and the valid court order exception was used more than 1,000 times. Kentucky has reduced the use of detention for status offenses significantly, with 323 being detained in 2018, but, as Justice Cabinet Secretary, John Tilley stated, it’s still “very negative and damaging for these children who are placed in what essentially are juvenile prisons for not having committed a crime.” With the reauthorization of the JJDPA, kids will no longer spend 30 days or more in detention for status offenses or VCOs, and a reentry plan will have to be in place that could help ensure they don’t return to court for similar offenses in the future.

This blog is part of a short series describing the changes to the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and opportunities for Kentucky’s kids and families who are involved in the youth justice system or at risk. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more information on the impacts of JJPDA in Kentucky.