Youth advocates and their funders are hoping that 2015 is going to be a very good year for juvenile justice reform. The year is starting with bipartisan legislation submitted to congress by senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) which would overhaul outdated juvenile justice laws nationally, with a particular focus on ending imprisonment for status offenses, such as children who are truant, runaway, or violate curfew, alcohol, and tobacco laws. The new law also provides clear direction to state and local governments on how to stop racial profiling and reduce levels of imprisonment for young people of color.
Many big funders have been pushing for these changes for years, including Annie E. Casey and MacArthur. Another important funder who has been helping push key reforms is the Public Welfare Foundation (PWF). Started in 1948 with a gift of sewing machines for Jamaican immigrants, PWF has grown into a national grantmaker with over $500 million in assets and the goal of advancing justice and opportunity for people in need. It particularly narrows its scope to three areas: criminal justice, juvenile justice, and workers' rights, and in 2011 also added a special initiative to fund civil legal aid for the poor.
In the juvenile justice category, grants this year are going to the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition in Denver, Colorado ($225,000 – 2 years) and the National Juvenile Justice Network in Washington, DC. ($500,000 – 2 years). Both of these grants are for general support. This support is what makes it possible for them to collect data and do advocacy work for new laws like those in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JDDPA).
These organizations are doing important ground-level data collection and advocacy, alerting the public, for example, that the medium-security prison for youth in Colorado is comprised of 82 percent Black and Hispanic youth and helping policy makers understand how outdated policies are impacting the health and economic well-being of youth with juvenile justice involvement. On the national level, NJJN has network advocacy organizations in 39 states that are working to change laws and enact public policies that keep youth out of jail and give them better things to do in the community.
PWF is also a supporter of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), which is putting out some of the most effective research on the problem of charging kids for status offenses. Its recent report, Kids Doing Time for What's Not a Crime, TPPF produced a status offense assessment for the nation, clarifying the nature of this problem and the social and financial toll it is taking.
As an interesting aside, this year's grant from PWF to the TPPF is for criminal justice work—$300,000 over two years, aimed at increasing support "among conservative audiences through the Right on Crime initiative." Efforts to build bipartisan consensus around juvenile justice reform are likely to be part of the agenda here.
According to sources in Senator Whitehouse's office, the timing for reintroducing the JJDPA is still being ironed out, but the plan is to make 2015 a historic year for juvenile justice reforms. The current focus in the juvenile justice field appears to be on pushing for some possible changes in leadership at the top, so perhaps Whitehouse and Grassley are waiting for all that to blow over before they get down to business with the JJDPA. As with most successful initiatives, timing is key.