House Set To Revamp Approach to Juvenile Justice

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The House is expected to pass a bill this week that would dramatically overhaul federal crime-prevention programs targeting young people, making some educators nervous that funding they've counted on since the mid-1970s may soon be harder to get.

The proposed Juvenile Crime Control and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1997, HR 1818, would restructure the Department of Justice's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention by consolidating its crime-prevention programs and transferring control of them to the states through lump-sum payments.

This year, the juvenile-justice office earmarked $118 million in grants for an assortment of juvenile-crime-prevention approaches, including anti-gang efforts, boot camps, and elementary school conflict-resolution programs.

Under the proposed legislation, state leaders would be able to use federal dollars to pay for a broad range of juvenile-crime-prevention projects of their own design without having to apply for funding through a targeted grant program.

The bill, which would reauthorize the juvenile-justice office, does not propose slashing the office's appropriation. Many educators, however, are concerned that the block grant approach could eventually mean fewer dollars for local education programs. Without specific program funds set aside for school-based violence-prevention efforts, critics argue, there would be no guarantee schools and districts would garner the same level of federal aid.

"We are always concerned about block grants because it usually is the mechanism for a cut in funds in the long run," said Stephen Yurek, the general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

Congress expects to wrap up work on HR 1818, a companion bill in the Senate, and related juvenile-justice legislation by September.

Control Issues

HR 1818's GOP sponsors argue that the proposed legislation would provide states with more flexibility to tailor anti-crime measures that work in their regions.

Congressional Republicans have long criticized the juvenile-justice office for being too prescriptive about how states could use crime-prevention grants. In addition, a recent report commissioned by Congress found that a substantial number of federally funded violence-prevention efforts were only marginally effective in thwarting juvenile crime. (See Education Week, April 30, 1997.)

Despite the decrease in violent-crime rates among adults in recent years, the youth crime rate has been rising. The Justice Department predicts that if current trends persist and the juvenile population continues to climb as expected--by 22 percent over the next decade--arrests of minors for violent crimes will more than double by 2010.

"Most successful solutions to juvenile crime are developed at the state and local level by those who understand the unique characteristics of youth in their area," said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., one of the bill's primary sponsors.

Like the welfare overhaul enacted by Congress last year, the juvenile-crime bill is popular among state leaders eager to reduce restrictions on federal aid. Many governors argue that, when it comes to fighting juvenile crime, they--not the federal government--know best.

"We could sit down with the educators and local officials and law enforcement and come up with a better way to meet that need instead of having a plethora of programs going every which direction," said Kevin Keane, a spokesman for Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, a Republican. "Let the states develop the programs themselves instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all program on all 50 states," Mr. Keane said.

Fewer Dollars?

Sue Krahe, who recently won a three-year, $600,000 federal grant for a project to reduce the presence of gangs in schools and communities, is concerned, meanwhile, that her future budget might be in jeopardy. Ms. Krahe's organization, a Tucson-based nonprofit group called Our Town Family Center, receives 25 percent of its funding from the federal government.

"We are definitely concerned because we won't be able to continue the work at the rate it is today," Ms. Krahe said. "I'm not sure what will happen."

Beyond the funding issue, though, many educators and youth advocates also object to the bill on philosophical grounds, saying it focuses too heavily on punishment.

HR 1818 and its Senate counterpart, S 10, would allow states to relax special protections on housing youths in the criminal-justice system and strengthen states' ability to prosecute and incarcerate young offenders. Both the House and Senate bills would allow juveniles and adults to have increased contact in shared detention facilities and would double the amount of time minor offenders may be held in adult jails.

A broader juvenile-crime-control measure, HR 3, which passed the House this spring, would also open the records of young offenders to the public, including school officials, and toughen penalties for juvenile crime. There's been no action on a related Senate measure, S 825.

"They've shifted it to the bricks-and-mortar, lock-them-up-and-treat-them-like-adults approach, but the emphasis should be on prevention and giving kids some hope," Mr. Yurek of the NASSP argued.

Justice Department officials and Democratic aides close to the process said last week that they expect the balance of punishment vs. prevention to shift somewhat when all the bills are eventually reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee. Senate leaders are planning to move S 10 to the floor for a vote by next month and hope to have an omnibus juvenile-crime bill sent to President Clinton by September.

Vol. 16, Issue 40, Pages 20, 25

Published in Print: July 9, 1997, as House Set To Revamp Approach to Juvenile Justice
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