Latino youth, like all youth in our country, should receive fair and equal treatment in our juvenile justice system. The share of youth ages 10–17 in the U.S. who are Hispanic rose from 15.4% in 2000 to 20.2% in 2009. Hispanic youth currently face a number of challenges in the juvenile justice system that will likely become more pronounced in the absence of positive policy change. Though poor data collection methods often hide their presence in the system, available data indicate that Latinos have disproportionately high contact with the system at all points. Moreover, Latinos would benefit from greater access to community-based preventive services and alternatives to detention that would deter their contact with the system and provide much-needed services. In addition, anti-gangs laws that do not address the root of the problems and provide for effective holistic services too often harm youth rather than prevent involvement in gangs. NCLR supports juvenile justice reform policies that emphasize preventing and reducing Latino involvement in the justice system.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is the main piece of federal legislation addressing the juvenile justice system. Originally written in 1974, the law has been updated periodically but is now four years overdue for reauthorization. During the 111th Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a reauthorization bill, but no further action was taken in the Senate or House. No legislation has been introduced in the 112th Congress. Reauthorization of the JJDPA is critically important to increasing fairness for Latinos involved with the system and should include a few key reforms:
- Latinos are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Reauthorization should strengthen the core requirement to reduce disproportionate minority contact by requiring the collection of ethnicity data at various points in the system. This change would make it is easier to implement and measure the effectiveness of targeted policies and practices that can reduce DMC.
- Latino youth face cultural and linguistic challenges when navigating the juvenile justice system. Reauthorization should encourage the use of culturally and linguistically competent programs and services throughout the system to better serve Latino youth and families. Specifically, reauthorization should increase support for culturally and linguistically competent prevention and alternative to detention programs to help protect youth from the harmful effects of detention and incarceration.
- Latino youth incarcerated in adult jails face serious dangers, including an increased risk of sexual abuse and exposure to hardened criminals. Reauthorization should protect Latinos from the dangers of imprisonment in adult facilities by prohibiting youth charged as adults from being incarcerated in adult facilities, and by requiring sight and sound separation from adults in the exceptional situations in which youth may be held in adult facilities.
For more information on NCLR’s priorities for JJDPA reauthorization, see Reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act: The Impact on Latino Youth.
For more information on JJDPA reauthorization, visit www.act4jj.org, a campaign of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition.
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) there was a 16% decline in overall juvenile arrests from 1999 to 2008, including a 9% decline in arrests for violent offenses. Despite the decline in crime perpetrated by youth, 47 states and the District of Columbia enacted some form of legislation related to gangs. At the national level, the proposed Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2009 sought to deter and punish violent gang crime by enacting new definitions for gangs and gang crimes and increasing the potential sentences for them. However, it also exposed youth, particularly those of color, to federal prosecution and imprisonment as adults in federal facilities for non-violent gang crimes. Overarching anti-gang legislation, policies and practices have a disproportionate and negative impact on youth of color, particularly Latino youth, who are subjected to racial-profiling, “gang enhanced” sentencing guidelines, and imprisonment in adult facilities where they are abused, assaulted and ultimately groomed into hardened criminals. Gang crime remains a serious issue in the Latino community, but punitive measures designed only to punish and not to reform exacerbate the problem.
Examining the risk factors for gang involvement is essential to building a comprehensive strategy that provides the requisite framework for effective policy. Understanding how factors such as individual and family demographics, personal traits, peer group relationships, school engagement, and community involvement contribute to gang formation and gang affiliation increases awareness and helps to shape gang prevention measures. Legislation such as the Youth PROMISE Act that incorporates these measures and focuses on intervention and prevention, rather than incarceration, shifts the emphasis from punishment to prevention and rehabilitation, contributes to a decrease in recidivism, and reduces youth gang involvement. Implementation of community-based treatment and prevention programs that involve the family, community-based service providers, mentors and law enforcement have proven to be successful in reducing gang involvement.
Juvenile Justice Reform in the News
"Locked up and vulnerable," The Washington Post, February 21, 2010
"De-Criminalizing Children," The New York Times, December 16, 2009
"Jailing Juveniles," The Washington Post, December 14, 2009