Photo by 401(K) 2013, via Flickr
Federal funding for state juvenile justice programs, already waning in recent years, could take another big hit under a proposal this week from the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department.
On Wednesday, the panel proposed to slash federal spending from $266 million to $196 million annually for the year starting October 1.
The subcommittee wants to zero out a major crime prevention funding program, as well as one called the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants, which support state efforts to establish "graduated sanctions" for juvenile delinquents.
Those grants were advocated by congressional Republicans in the 1990s. The spending committee is currently headed by a Republican, Frank Wolf of Virginia.
As recently as fiscal year 2010, the same juvenile justice programs that could dip below $200 million got a total of almost $425 million from Congress.
To receive aid from Washington, states must adhere to federal guidelines under the historic 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The law includes several "core protections." These include rules that there must be "sight and sound" separation of accused juvenile and adult offenders in jail, that states address the over-representation of minority youths in the juvenile justice system, and that youths not be jailed for "status offenses"--violations that wouldn't be crimes if they were adults, like truancy or curfew infractions.
"If these cuts survive, I'd be surprised if multiple states don't drop out of the federal juvenile justice formula grant program, " said Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, the agency which oversees juvenile justice funding.
Robinson, now on the faculty of George Mason University in Virginia, added:
"What a loss! And at a time when such progress is being made in the states in addressing juvenile crime."
Liz Ryan, President of the Campaign for Youth Justice, an advocacy group, complained that the proposed cuts "are short-sighted and will only serve to hurt kids."
Ryan noted that the "federal investment in juvenile justice has been on the decline for nearly a decade despite the fact that we know these dollars help states build effective justice systems that protect youth, reduce recidivism, and promote public safety.
The House subcommittee proposal is far from final, but in a period when Congress is looking for major federal budget trims to reduce the huge federal deficit, it might be surprising if either the full House or the Senate acted to restore juvenile justice aid.
Why are House Republicans targeting juvenile justice money in their zeal to find spending reductions?
The subcommittee hasn't yet issued its report explaining its actions, but one plausible reason is that juvenile crime is down.
A crude measure is the number of reported arrests of youths under 18. In 1994, the national total was about 2.7 million. By 2010, the number had dropped to about 1.6 million. Arrests of juveniles accused of violent offenses dropped in half during the same period, from about 150,000 to 75,000.
While juvenile justice advocates contend that federal funding of state and local anticrime programs is one reason that those numbers have dropped, there have not been strong voices in the halls of government making those arguments in recent years.
During his first term, President Barack Obama failed to nominate a director of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The administration finally installed a director this year.
Members of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees and the Justice Department appropriations subcommittees in both houses have not been particularly active on juvenile justice issues.
One exception is Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who continues to push for a Youth PROMISE Act he contends would be a cost-effective way of keeping juvenile crime rates down.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers