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Providing Vulnerable Youth a Better Path Forward

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), held a hearing today to discuss reforming the country’s juvenile justice system to promote safe communities and set at-risk youth on the pathway to success.

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), held a hearing today to discuss reforming the country’s juvenile justice system to promote safe communities and set at-risk youth on the pathway to success.

“Youth who have been incarcerated are 26 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers and 26 percent more likely to engage in other unlawful activity and return to jail as adults,” Chairman Rokita said. “We, as a society, have to help children avoid becoming one of those statistics, and we can accomplish that by helping some stay out of the system all together and by helping others come out of the system with the opportunities and the motivation they need to chart a better course for themselves.”

Witnesses agreed — giving personal accounts of their work with youth in the juvenile justice system and urging reforms that provide kids with a better path forward.

Meg Williams manages the Office of Adult and Juvenile Justice Assistance in Colorado’s Department of Public Safety. With more than 30 years of experience in the field, Williams said many of the vulnerable youth she encounters on a daily basis have found themselves “caught in the juvenile justice system as a result of delinquent behavior” — much of which stems from other, larger neglects.

“Research has found that juveniles in the justice system come to us with profound needs due to histories of abuse and neglect, trauma, poverty, educational disabilities, and mental health and substance use and abuse treatment needs,” she said.

Williams went on to emphasize the need for improved support of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to better assist the collaborative effort among families and local leaders to keep communities safe while also ensuring vulnerable youth are able to succeed in life.

“[We] need your support, assistance, and partnership in continuing to hold youth accountable for their behaviors, in continuing to work toward reducing victimization and increasing public safety, but in ways that recognize and respond to the myriad intervention needs of these young people,” Williams said.

Matt Reed, executive director of YMCA Safe Place Services in Louisville, Kentucky, has worked with at-risk youth for more than 20 years. He said effective and evidence-based solutions play an important role in keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system.

Reed shared the story of 12-year-old Cassidy who grew up in a troubled home where drug dealing and usage often occurred. In the summer of 2012, as a freshman in high school, Cassidy was arrested after her home was raided by law enforcement.

“[Cassidy’s] mom had refused to give up any of the dealers, choosing instead to pin it on Cassidy,” Reed said. “She watched her daughter taken off in handcuffs.”

As the charges were resolved, Cassidy went into the YMCA’s shelter program and soon moved in with her grandparents. She began working with a case manager at the YMCA’s Safe Place — spending several months in counseling and at family team meetings. Cassidy also participated in community service at the YMCA and committed herself to extra tutoring. As a result of these efforts, her life began to improve.

“Cassidy received her high school diploma in August of 2014,” Reed said, explaining the value of community-based programs. “She indeed went to college and is enrolled today at the University of Louisville.”

Denise Navarre Cubbon, a juvenile judge serving in Lucas County, Ohio, expressed similar support for better alternatives to address the underlying problems at-risk youth face.

“[Young people] should be given the kinds of services that are appropriate to help them make changes in their lives, whether it is cognitive or family therapy, partnering with a meaningful adult, getting special education services, or addressing the causes and effects of trauma,” she said.

Patrick J. Flannelly, chief of police in Lafayette, Indiana, serves as a member of the “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids” initiative. Flannelly said reforms should include alternatives that keep kids from becoming repeat offenders.

“Research has shown that effective community-based alternatives to detention for low- or moderate-risk youth can significantly reduce the likelihood that the youth will get into trouble again,” Flannelly explained. “These intervention programs engage the family, reasserting both family and personal responsibility … This is an important part of fixing the problem, since many of the youth we see are following the footsteps of family members or peers who have previously gone down the wrong road.”

Chairman Rokita welcomed the views of witnesses and pledged to advance juvenile justice reforms that provide at-risk youth with a better path forward.

“As a father, I want my children to have every opportunity they need to succeed in life, and I work very hard to ensure they do. I also work hard to ensure they understand it’s their responsibility to seize those opportunities,” Chairman Rokita said. “Unfortunately, not all children are in the same position, and those are the kids we are here for today. I look forward to continuing our work to provide them the hope of a brighter future.”

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