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Juvenile Justice Reform: A Law That Congress Needs to Pass

David Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcerated youth. His book, I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine, documents the lives of children in adult lockups and how we as individuals and as a society have ultimately failed them. The following article was written to draw attention to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that is slowly making its way through Congress.

When you go to jail, you feel like everybody's in your business but nobody cares. You get cuffed, and shoved into the back of a squad car. The police blotter broadcasts to the world what you did. You get booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and everything about you is fed into "The Man's" hungry computer. You're watched by correctional officers, wardens, nurses, and other inmates; even the kitchen workers warily scope you out. There are bars instead of doors.

At least that is how you feel if you're a kid doing time in an adult county prison like the teenagers I taught for ten years.

I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine Like many adolescent perceptions of the world, they're right and they're wrong. Everybody is in your business, watching, overseeing, suspicious of everything you do, telling you to do this, don't do that. You're always under somebody's eye, electronic or otherwise, yet you feel alone, isolated, convinced nobody cares.

But I want to tell the kids I taught, and every other kid locked away, that there are people who, although they may seem to be "in your business," want to help out, and do care.

A few of those locked-up teens might have heard about the Supreme Court's recent decision, outlawing life without parole for non-homicidal crimes by juveniles. But I doubt they've heard about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Not many people have, it seems, considering that the bill, first enacted in 1974, is woefully and embarrassingly three years overdue for Congressional reauthorization. Finally, it is making its way slowly through Congress.

The bill calls for reforms to the juvenile justice system that are simple yet vital for the well-being of young people entangled in the system. It provides federal funds to states who comply with the following conditions when dealing with young offenders.

Participating states are encouraged to get minors out of adult jails and prisons. If they cannot for some reason, they must ensure that kids in these facilities are out of "sight and sound" of adults. Unfortunately it's a restriction that doesn't work. In the county adult lockup where I worked, many young adolescents were housed on a minor's block. Nevertheless, they had ongoing contact with adults at rec, clinics, the law library, and in the hallways. Likewise, housing teens on a separate block didn't protect them from the harmful effects of the adult jail culture—violence, predators, paranoia, and assault to all the senses—which permeated the place. States must be urged to remove youths from adult contact all together.

The bill also requires states to address what Congress calls "disproportionate minority contact." Some of us would call it racial profiling or racism. Others would call it the new Jim Crow. The kids I taught would call it, "locking up the brothers." It's a lifeless, bloodless, meaningless term for a devastating reality—the increased incarceration of young people of color. It's hard to believe that in 2010 the states must have money dangled in front of them to get them to work on this blatant, escalating racial disparity.

Another condition is that states must stop jailing kids who are guilty of status offenses such as truancy; running away; alcohol or tobacco possession; and breaking curfew. I worked with youngsters, some living in group homes, others at home, who were doing time in an adult facility for truancy or for breaking curfew because the adults responsible for them wanted "to teach them a lesson." I can assure you, it did.

And finally, states would be required to improve conditions wherever juveniles are detained by ensuring proper mental health and medical services and by ending such dangerous practices as pepper spraying, hog-tying, and imprisoning in prolonged isolation. Too many young inmates are in desperate need of both. Yet often these needs are overlooked or outright neglected for the unstated reason of saving money. I have seen, and written about minors slipping into depression or the chaos of psychosis because they were denied prescribed medications.

JJDPA is a good bill and there are lots of good people behind it. It has over 16 congressional sponsors and is endorsed by 9 international groups including Human Rights Watch; more than 90 national groups; 259 state and local organizations; and the Department of Justice.

That's the news I'd like to share with the nation's locked-up kids: indeed, people are "in your business," and because of those people, you're not alone. It might be a tough sell, though. When you're 15, sitting in a cramped, dirty, smelly cell, cut off from anyone and anything that has any meaning to you, you get mighty skeptical and feel abandoned. I just hope the 111th Congress doesn't let these kids down. It's happened far too many times in their lives already.