Across the country, nearly 45,000 young people are spending tonight in a detention facility. In some states, records show children as young as 8 are ordered to serve time in youth jails for behaviors as minor as missing school, running away from home, and being out past curfew. While the number of young people who are locked away in our country has decreased dramatically in recent years, far too many children and youth remain unnecessarily separated from their families, communities, and schools.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

First passed in 1974 and last reauthorized in 2002, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is the main federal law in our country related to juvenile justice. It helps provide an even playing field for young people regardless of geography. The law is currently up for reauthorization, and although members of the House and Senate have already unanimously passed their own measures to update the JJDPA for the first time in 15 years, the time has come for them to work together to reconcile the two bills.

The JJDPA has a number of core principles. For example, it prohibits locking up children for status offenses like running away from home and missing school — neither of which would be considered a crime for an adult. It calls for the removal of children from adult facilities, where they can face abuse and violence. It provides common-sense protections for youth, such as making sure girls cannot be shackled while giving birth, and requires clear transition plans to ensure young people do not become homeless as a result of their juvenile justice system involvement. It also ensures that class credits obtained while in facilities transfer back to a student’s community school and provides critical funding to states to provide diversion and mentoring programs. Initiatives such as these save money and improve public safety outcomes.

Additionally, currently available data reveals that minority groups, particularly black youth, have a higher rate of contact in the system and receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts.For this reason, the JJDPA also requires states that receive funding to research and address these disproportionate rates of system involvement among youth of color. However, not all states have been able to successfully track this data or address it. Reauthorizing the JJDPA would help to remedy this issue.

Language to resolve differences between the House and Senate-passed bills cleared the House before the midterm elections. This means that, at present, Congress is quite literally three-quarters of the way to better protecting our youth. But only 16 days remain before the clock runs out on our children yet again.

While we applaud Congress for coming together across the aisle to address criminal justice for adults and make much-needed reforms in that area, we strongly urge it not to forget our most vulnerable citizens: our children and youth.

In his remarks to the country earlier this month, President Trump lauded criminal justice reform as a breakthrough that can help reduce recidivism. Juvenile justice reform addresses this same important goal. Research shows that many youth will grow out of adolescent indiscretions without court involvement. Research also shows that the deeper a young person becomes involved with the system, the more likely they are to come back into contact with it later in life. Accordingly, true and meaningful criminal justice reform requires us to support our youth in order to train successful and productive adults.

As the holiday season approaches, what better gift to give our youth, their families, and their communities than to join together to ensure that they are all safer and better-supported — sooner.

Image from Shutterstock

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