No More Deferred Dreams: We Need Smarter Policies for Youth Justice

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

In 1951, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote these prolific words in his exploration of race and social justice in the U.S. The youth justice system for far too long has been deferring, if not extinguishing dreams of children, family and communities.

The youth justice system’s tentacles’ reach into the lives of children and entire communities of color and traps them into a cycle of negative life outcomes. Rather than focusing on developmentally appropriate responses to the lives of many young people experiencing trauma, educational disruptions, and social and emotional instability; society treats these children as throwaways.

Today we have much more data on the impact of the youth justice system than we did even 10 years ago. Most of the young people trapped in the youth justice system fall far below grade level in academic achievement and a substantial percentage also deal with learning disabilities or mental health disorders. Impacts include the labor market as well. A formerly incarcerated Black man earns hourly wages that are 10% lower after prison than before. In fact, any formerly incarcerated worker – regardless of race or ethnicity – experiences a 33% loss in their number of weeks worked per year after they are released.

This is indeed a dream deferred.

How can we ensure that all young people, regardless of their race and ethnicity, can achieve their “American Dream?”

On December 11, 2014, our nation came one step closer to answering this question when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2014.

This bill is designed to reauthorize and strengthen the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA), which – at the time – revolutionized juvenile justice practices in the U.S. by establishing core protections for young people who come into conflict with the law. In essence, the JJDPA is the only federal statute that sets out national standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system.

The re-authorization of this legislation has been a long overdue and we commend this recent effort.

This bill is now more than seven years overdue and its current language is much too vague to adequately address the reforms needed throughout juvenile justice systems. The result is that State and local officials have been operating without clear guidance for how to effectively reduce racial and ethnic disparities in their communities for far too long. As advocates, we are heartened to see that new language in the proposed bill will provide a clearer direction to States and localities about how they can most effectively plan and implement data-driven approaches to ensure fairness and accountability.

The JJDPA aims to accomplish three important objectives to reform the policies and practices of juvenile justice systems in localities:

First, it will provide direction and support to States for improvements in their juvenile justice systems through technical assistance and training.

Second, it will also support programs and practices that have significantly contributed to the reduction of delinquency; to include community based interventions driven by evidence-based practices.

Third, it will address the disproportionate contact that youth of color have with the juvenile justice system.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute believes that the reauthorization of JJDPA is sound policy that can aid in efforts to interrupt the negative cycle that juvenile justice systems have on the ability of young people, particularly youth of color, to live their lives to the fullest and achieve their dreams.

However, our action is still needed.

We must sound an alarm about the unjust state of the juvenile justice system and demand that our government leaders act now to halt the destructive, unfair and inequitable treatment of our children, too many of which are young kids of color.

What actions can you take?

There are several action steps that you can take now to ensure the passage of this bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Congress, and ultimately, the President’s desk:

* Issue a statement in support of the bill.

* Encourage other organizations to endorse the bill.

* Send a Thank You Action Alert to your networks. You can find an alert on JJDPA Matters Action Center here.

* Get the word out through social media.

Together we must challenge individuals, communities, cities, counties, regions, States, and the entire nation to be accountable for the outcomes of justice systems at every level of government. No longer can we allow the dreams of countless numbers of young people be deferred, devastated, and derailed by ineffective and expensive “tough on crime” policies that do nothing to rehabilitate our youth and address real concerns about public safety.

The re-authorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act is an important first step.


For more information on national and state statistics on the extent of racial and ethnic disparities:

The W. Haywood Burns Institute is an Oakland-based national nonprofit organization. Our mission is to protect and improve the lives of youth of color and poor children and the well being of their communities by ensuring fairness and equity throughout all public and private youth serving systems.