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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

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Washington, DC 20530

March 2023 | Volume 16 | Issue 3

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs (OJP). Its mission is to provide national leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to youth delinquency and victimization.

OJJDP is committed to transforming the juvenile justice system to promote the welfare of all youth. Three priorities guide the agency in this transformation: (1) Treat children as children; (2) Serve children at home, with their families and in their communities; (3) Open up opportunities for system-involved youth. OJJDP’s vision statement describes a commitment to building “a nation where all children are free from crime and violence” and where youth contact with the justice system should be “rare, fair, and beneficial.” The agency takes those three adjectives—rare, fair, and beneficial—very seriously. Youth contact with the justice system is neither fair nor beneficial if that system fails to treat them as children, respecting their needs and ensuring they receive developmentally appropriate services.

This begins with ensuring that young people who break the law are processed in the juvenile justice system—not adult criminal court. According to a 2007 report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth charged as adults are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who spent time in the juvenile justice system. Funneling youth into the adult system also exacerbates racial disparities. Studies show that youth of color are more likely than white youth to be prosecuted in adult criminal court and placed in adult jails and prisons, even when charged with similar offenses.

This country still houses thousands of children under the age of 18 in adult jails and prisons. An adult-centered approach is not appropriate for children. Locked up with adults, children don’t get age-appropriate care, therapy, and educational and vocational training. Youth in adult facilities are also held in solitary confinement and suffer physical and sexual abuse at higher rates than their peers in youth facilities, leaving them with lasting trauma. Too many young people never develop the decision-making skills they need to move forward in life.

Scientific research shows that younger youth are prone to impulsive, emotional, and risk-taking behaviors. Research also tells us that young, developing brains are capable of change, and that most youth age out of delinquent behavior naturally as they mature. It is essential to provide opportunities, support, and services that guide children towards positive choices and change.

In addition to keeping kids out of adult courts, jails, and prisons, another level of work is to ensure that the juvenile justice system does not simply mirror the adult criminal justice system, but treats children in age-appropriate ways. Children should not be subjected to solitary confinement, shackling, and abuse. There are ways to ensure that each state’s juvenile justice system follows research and uses the developmentally appropriate approaches that work best with children.

OJJDP funds many programs that support and protect children, including the following:

  • The Title II Formula Grants program promotes state compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and its four core protections: the deinstitutionalization of status offenders, separation of youth from adults in secure facilities, removal of youth from adult jails and lockups, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Programs to provide and train defense attorneys and prosecutors who work with youth. Explaining complex legal concepts and procedures to a young person takes specialized skill, and youth without adequate counsel are more likely to be incarcerated and sent to adult courts and facilities.
  • Mentoring programs that introduce youth to meaningful, lasting relationships with responsible adults. Mentoring has been shown to foster youth self-esteem, academic achievement, and peer relationships.
  • Juvenile drug treatment courts, which provide specialized treatment and guidance to youth with substance use or co-occurring disorders.
  • Current OJJDP Funding Opportunities to support local and state efforts to prevent delinquency and improve juvenile justice systems.

It’s clear that relegating children to the adult criminal justice system and housing them in adult jails and prisons causes lasting harm. The only way forward—the way supported by research—is to hold young people accountable in a developmentally appropriate manner and provide them with opportunities to learn and recover from their mistakes.

Liz Ryan

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