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Defending Juvenile Justice?

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Last month, Eric Holder announced the Defending Childhood initiative, which seeks to address the impact of violence in children's lives. This multi-million dollar initiative is aimed at both preventing violence but also addressing the role that children's exposure to violence plays in their abilities to thrive into adulthood. The Department of Justice explicitly recognizes the role that young people's exposure to violence plays in their later chances of engaging in violent acts. Yet, the Obama administration has failed to appoint a chief administrator for the Federal Government's juvenile justice agency, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a position that is critical in efforts to implement such an initiative.

Additionally, the primary piece of legislation which provides federal funding for juvenile justice programs, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), has remained stagnant in congress for almost a year, and is now overdue for reauthorization. In Obama's proposed budget, funding for juvenile justice programs are being reduced by thirteen per cent from last year. It has become clear that, despite some progressive reforms in the adult criminal justice system under the Obama administration, juvenile justice reform is receiving short shrift.

As an Illinois State Senator, Obama led the fight to change the state's laws, which automatically allowed for the transfer of youth to the adult criminal justice system. He said "it's not the kind of state I want to live in, where we are afraid of our children and we are continually building more prisons, as opposed to building more schools." With this month's release of Waiting for "Superman," Obama has revived the issue of school reform, but not that of juvenile justice. However, it is abundantly clear that the two issues are intimately linked by the forces of poverty and inequality. This is a point that Waiting for "Superman" gave only a slight nod to, and one which far too many federal legislators have neglected as they have allowed funding for important juvenile justice programs to be abandoned in favor of the more politically palatable issue of education reform.

Like in other parts of the Obama administration, the Department of Justice has become the province of Clinton-era officials. Unfortunately, prison reform and the cause of social justice faced many setbacks during that time, falling victim to the rising tide of neoliberal thinking about maximizing the goods of the private market, and encouraging "personal responsibility," instead of bolstering public funding and support for the most marginalized. Today, we live with the consequences of those decisions in the lives of young people. Juvenile justice systems across America are filled with young people who were born after 1996, when President Clinton supported massive changes in the welfare system that made these children's parents ineligible for the vital supports that they needed to raise their children. Since that time, the gap in wealth inequality has widened, record numbers of young people are unemployed, and the juvenile "superpredators" of yesterday have become the adult prisoners of today. It is time to stop this tide of mass incarceration, and focus resources on young people, whose very entrance into the juvenile justice system signals their increased likelihood of later incarceration.

It is time for the Obama administration to find a leader for the OJJDP. Although some names have circulated, there are few signs that there is the political will or momentum to finalize such a decision. This is an opportunity for the administration to designate a leader who has the experience, vision, and insight necessary to guide federal support for youth justice in a way that simultaneously addresses the harms caused by the violence committed by young people as well as the harms caused by their incarceration.

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