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Column: Reforming juvenile justice to save kids

Congressman Jason Lewis

Jason Lewis, R-Minn., can be reached at 202-225-2271, 651-846-2120 or http://lewis.house.gov

There are over a million kids in our country's juvenile justice system. A million kids is a lot — especially when contact with the system can be the first stop in a life of persistent incarceration. Here in Red Wing, the juvenile detention facility takes in hundreds of young people each year and works to help them turn their lives around.

Our kids deserve a better chance, and a second chance, which is why I introduced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. Having passed the House in May, the Senate companion to my legislation just passed early in August. Now I'm working on ironing out the small differences and getting the bill to the president's desk.

My Juvenile Justice Reform will have a positive impact both in Red Wing and on the lives of the young people in the system.

The U.S. criminal justice system should never lose sight of the ultimate goal of rehabilitation, especially when offenders are minors with a lot to learn and their lives ahead of them.

When we lock up millions of people, disproportionately minorities, we create a cycle of incarceration that leads too many off the pathway to success. The costs to society continue to add up. More importantly, we lose the value these citizens can bring to our community when they get back on the right track.

What if we didn't jail so many young people in the first place? If our strategies of intervention worked better, if we targeted taxpayer resources better, and if we didn't put teenagers in prison next to hardened criminals, we could confront the cycle of mass incarceration at its roots.

My legislation does just that.

The law coordinating federal support to our juvenile justice system hasn't been reauthorized in 15 years. While the federal government has been allocating funding, none of the most recent research has been used to direct resources where it will be most effective. And the lack of reforms has meant that outdated practices have been allowed to continue on.

Under the current system, law enforcement can restrain a pregnant juvenile with handcuffs during labor. The JJRA's reforms will ensure that pregnant juveniles who go into labor won't be cuffed. It also makes wise use of your tax dollars by requiring evidence-based strategies based on the data collected over the past 15 years. Plus, it increases oversight to ensure efficient use of federal funds.

I also target funding toward two significant, at-risk groups: human trafficking survivors and former gang members. Anyone who has left behind a gang affiliation, or managed to get away from people who sell kids for money is clearly in a vulnerable situation. They need help the most, and the JJRA makes sure they get it.

Education, especially career and technical training, is essential for at-risk youths to turn their lives around. That's why the JJRA builds partnerships between state educational agencies and juvenile justice centers, ensuring those in the system can continue their education. When young people exit the system with the skills to succeed in a career, they can avoid a life of crime.

Make no mistake, the JJRA doesn't offer anyone a free pass. What it does offer is that invaluable second chance.

For example, many of these kids have committed a "status offense" — not a crime for an adult, but an offense for a minor. That's things like skipping school, running away from home, or drinking underage. These young people shouldn't be locked up — and most states agree — but there's a "valid court order" exemption.

The VCO means that if a young person violates a court order about school attendance, the court can put them in jail. That's a poor answer which does nothing to involve parents and teachers. It's also a prime example of how we can take kids with one or two mistakes and direct them into a life of crime. My JJRA phases the VCO out entirely and makes it clear that kids can get a second chance.

The numbers make the case: kids who have been incarcerated are 26 percent less likely to graduate high school and up to 26 percent more likely to return to jail as adults.

I'm proud to have the support of parents, teachers, and law enforcement. In fact, our own Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman said that "the new bill by Congressman Lewis is about getting youths back on track after making a wrong turn ... it's smart crime prevention that puts the interests of young people first."

Juvenile justice reform is needed. We all have a vested interest in making sure that the kids in all our neighborhoods get a second chance. Passing the JJRA into law will help young people get out of bad situations and achieve their full potential.

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