06/21/2010 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Is the Obama Administration on Juvenile Justice Reform?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being part of a group invited to The White House to discuss the need for the Obama Administration to focus on juvenile justice reform issues. It was an encouraging meeting, and the officials present seemed interested in what we had to say. The Administration contingent included representatives from the Domestic Policy Council, the Vice President's office, the Drug Czar's Office and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

While much has already been done in the early stages of the Obama administration to focus on early childhood development, education and children's health, almost no attention has been paid to youth in our juvenile justice system. This system far too frequently fails the children it is designed to serve, creating lifelong consequences for them as well for the public. With recidivism rates as high as 80% in some major urban areas and expensive "warehousing" of children in many juvenile justice systems which offer little rehabilitation, such programs are significantly contributing to state budget problems and making communities less safe.

Some programs cost over $200,000 per youth per year - 4 times Harvard's annual tuition - but with disastrous results. More importantly from a cost perspective, evidence shows that for two same-aged children committing the same crime, the one having contact with the juvenile detention system versus the other who is put in a diversion program has a far greater likelihood of incarceration upon reaching adulthood, and escalating adult prison costs are a major source of state fiscal problems across the nation. Additionally, young people who are detained in justice systems offering little rehabilitation --compared to youth detained in more therapeutic and restorative programs-- are more likely to drop out of school, have diminished job prospects and become more reliant on public assistance, thereby creating an even larger drain on government coffers. Yet we still detain many juveniles who can be served safely in the community and transfer many juvenile offenders for adult criminal prosecution, even though that course of action has been shown to actually exacerbate crime rates.

Unfortunately, to date, the Obama administration has yet to appoint a leader for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Without such a leader, there is no one to advocate for the re-authorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (which helps to promulgate best practices for states and localities) or for adequate funding levels needed to support this work across the country. There are some highly successful, extremely cost-effective diversion programs that keep kids out of the system and others that very effectively rehabilitate those who do enter it. But sadly, they have not been implemented in many cities and states that could greatly benefit from their presence.

Additionally, the Administration needs to lead the charge in advocating for the passage of the Federal Youth PROMISE Act (H.R. 1064/S. 435), authored by Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia. This bill would establish Federal funds for distribution to local governments for the purpose of keeping kids from entering the justice system. Sheriff Lee Baca, who heads law enforcement for Los Angeles County, the "gang capital of the world", testified in front of Congress that this Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation our nation could ever enact.

It's time to see some true White House leadership for these at risk youth who, without proper support and guidance, are not only failing to receive the help they need, but simultaneously and unnecessarily putting our communities at risk from both a public safety and a fiscal perspective.