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It is tempting to celebrate when a milestone is reached. In this case as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act nears its 40th birthday in 2014, juvenile justice advocates throughout the states and territories should reflect on the significance of what has happened since 1974.

The JJDPA is the cornerstone of core protections required by the federal government for all states relative to how youth are dealt with in juvenile justice systems. The Act has been remarkably successful in reducing the number of status offenders in jails and lockups, separating youth from adults in incarceration settings, and focusing attention on the disproportionately negative outcomes affecting children of color. Yet, the Act has not solved the basic problems necessitating its creation — that is, the overly harsh consequences to youth when encountering the court system; more importantly, the Act has only been partially successful in moving states towards an agreement as to what effective, even model juvenile justice systems should include and has been marginally instrumental in effecting policies related to prevention / early intervention across the developmental life course of children.

With advances in developmental science, behavioral health, early intervention and other technologies as well as increasingly collaborative efforts to improve the field (see MacArthur Foundation; Casey Family Programs and Annie E. Casey; Bill and Melinda Gates; Center for Children and Youth Justice; and many regional and local philanthropy entities such as Giddens, Stuart, Tow, the Philanthropy Northwest, New York Juvenile Justice Initiative; among others) we are poised to improve the breadth and scope of interventions in significant ways. What is needed is a renewed sense of national leadership and urgency as to the critical priority that the JJDPA plays as a central framework for communities across the country.

Juvenile crime statistics suggest that for many different reasons communities may be safer as juvenile crime has dropped over the past decade. Yet behind these numbers staggering realities confront us: violent crime and issues such as bullying/cyber-bullying occur with increasing publicity; weapons possession, prescription and nonprescription drug use are escalating; dramatic disproportionate minority incarceration, school suspensions and expulsions trouble nearly every juvenile justice and school location throughout our country …. It is not a time to ‘get comfortable’ and coast on the merits of our first 40 years with the JJDPA. Let’s heighten our efforts for federal prioritization to reauthorize and strengthen the JJDPA immediately. We need expanded and informed attention to the vulnerabilities affecting millions of children.

Our communities yearn for strong federal, state and local investments in alternatives to school suspension/expulsion, alternatives to juvenile arrest and/or detention, expanded mental health and substance abuse and recovery resources, youth workforce development and employment alternatives, programs to resource and strengthen vulnerable families, as well as comprehensive wraparound interventions. With every milestone comes a period of reflection as well as perspective taking toward the future. Our future without a reauthorized, stronger, and more research-informed JJDPA is a worrisome and likely more fragile one.

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