In September, PTA will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the nation’s first comprehensive law designed to prevent children and youth from entering the juvenile justice system and to protect those currently in the system. Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention has historically been one of PTA’s key public policy priorities and the association continues to advocate for improvements to the juvenile justice system in the United States.
A Separate Justice System for Children
In 1899, the first juvenile court in the nation was founded in Cook County, IL. That same year, PTA convention delegates passed the association’s first resolution addressing the way children are handled in the judicial system. The resolution called for nationwide juvenile court and probation systems in order to protect children from being incarcerated with adults. At that time, juveniles committing even minor offenses such as truancy would be held with adults, putting them in potential danger and in contact with more serious offenders. The mission of a juvenile justice system centers around the recognition that children have the ability to change, and the systems therefore focus resources on rehabilitation over punishment to help youth entering the system leave as productive adults.
After the 1899 convention, PTA members established their first Committee on Juvenile Courts and Probation (renamed the Committee on Juvenile Protection) and advocated at all levels of the association for safe and fair treatment of children involved in the judicial system. By the early 1925, as a result of the efforts of PTA members and other child advocates, all but two states had a separate juvenile court system.
PTA’s Juvenile Justice Advocacy Continues
Several decades later, in 1957, National PTA published What PTA Members Should Know About Juvenile Delinquency: Guide for Action, a booklet offering concrete courses of action for PTAs and communities to undertake to improve the juvenile justice system. In 1961, PTA supported the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, signed by President Kennedy. The Act was the first piece of federal juvenile justice legislation and authorized pilot grants for anti-delinquency initiatives, training programs, and studies on juvenile delinquency.
The scope of the Act was limited and states still struggled to create a safe and supportive system for children. Research in the late 1960s revealed inconsistencies among juvenile justice systems nationwide. Children continued to be incarcerated for “status offenses”—noncriminal behaviors such as truancy, curfew violation, and running away from home—with some children still detained with adults. The National Council of Juvenile Court Judges (NCJCJ) approached National PTA in the 1960s, informing the association that “juvenile court judges were not qualified by training or experience to function effectively in the complicated area of guaranteeing justice to juveniles.” In response, PTA co-sponsored four regional conferences with NCJCJ to acquaint PTA leaders with juvenile courts and their procedures and to develop an advocacy strategy to help solve the problems of children in trouble. Then in 1973 PTA and NCJCJ co-published Juvenile Justice: A Handbook for Volunteers in Juvenile Court and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) and NCJCJ funded 25-state volunteers-in-court programs through the conduit of state PTA units.
In the absence of a comprehensive federal statute, the role of the federal government was limited and could have little impact on the way states dealt delinquent youth and youth at risk of delinquency. There was a nationwide call from advocacy organizations including PTA for expanded resources and consistent protections for children. In response, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) with wide bipartisan support in 1974 to improve outcomes for youth and community safety.
The impact of the JJDPA over the last forty years has been remarkable: thousands of children have been kept out of facilities for committing minor offenses and kept separate from adults in detention. The JJDPA changed the way states approached juvenile justice by establishing a federal-state partnership and providing them with resources to improve their systems. The JJDPA also contains requirements to protect every child in the juvenile justice system that states must follow in order to receive these resources. As a result, communities and families in the United States, as well as youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system, are better served.