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As a nation, we’re living through a powerful moment of reflection on our country’s approach to criminal justice. Progress in states’ juvenile justice systems can offer insights into a better, fairer system – but only if the federal government makes good on its promise to fund what works.

Too often, we hear about the juvenile justice system only when things go wrong—and they do go wrong, we can do better. But over the past decade, a new story has emerged: all across the country, states are making great strides in creating fairer, more effective juvenile justice systems.  These approaches build on brain science and what we know about what works to help young people turn their lives around, in keeping with the rationale for establishing a separate system. As Rep. Kline (R-MN) said at an Oct. 8 Congressional hearing, done right, the juvenile justice system can “create positive opportunities for children.”

Many of these changes have happened over time and with little fanfare—in many cases, few residents of these states are aware of the extent and impact of these improvements.

Even less well-known is the role that federal funding plays in states’ ability to strengthen systems in a way that enables young people to get back on track and keeps communities safer. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it matters. A little federal funding goes a long way, as many states are proving.

Last fall, the Act-4-JJ Campaign in a letter to President Obama called for fiscal year 2016 budget recommendations that would more accurately represent how important the federal investments in state juvenile justice efforts are to protecting youth and promoting community safety.

While not nearly enough to cover the cuts of the last 15 years, we asked that funding for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) be restored.  

Federal JJDPA funding has declined more than 50 percent, including an 80 percent decrease in Title V funding—the only federal program that provides delinquency prevention funding at a local level. These funds support state systems that protect children from the dangers of adult jails and lockups; keep status offenders out of locked custody; and address the racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.  In addition, we made recommendations to the Administration to fund delinquency prevention, juvenile accountability, and community-based violence prevention efforts.  

Congress has also zeroed out the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants (JABG) funds: money law enforcement used to increase diversion programs, and other jurisdictions used reduce youth recidivism.  Juvenile Justice Federal Funding By Program

Through the FY16 appropriations process, Congress – particularly the Senate – adopted some of our recommendations, but the threat of further discretionary spending cuts and the failure of Congress to raise the debt ceiling puts all that in jeopardy.

In order for states and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to continue their steadfast work on protecting vulnerable children, reducing over-reliance on incarceration, and implementing programs that we know work, Congress needs to stop the cuts and start investing in what works for our kids and our communities.  

Marcy Mistrett is the President & CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice and co-chair of the ACT4JJ Campaign.

Find out more about the law and funding levels, and get involved at the collaborative #JJDPA Matters Action Center,  a joint effort of the Act 4 Juvenile Justice Coalition and SparkAction.

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