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Committee Statements

Lewis Statement: Markup of H.R. 1809, Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017

As someone who has been interested in the wider field of criminal justice reform for many years, it’s a privilege to be able to make some common-sense reforms to strengthen our juvenile justice system and help get our children on the right track.

Ensuring young people grow into productive members of society is essential to building a strong and prosperous nation. But the reality is that all across America there are young people experiencing grim and challenging circumstances. Some are growing up in broken or abusive homes. Others have loving parents who are struggling to make ends meet. As a result, some kids fall into the wrong crowd or make a bad decision that drastically changes their lives.

There are more than 1 million kids currently involved in the juvenile justice system — an experience that can have devastating consequences for their futures. In fact, kids who have been incarcerated are 26 percent less likely to graduate from high school and up to 26 percent more likely to return to jail as adults.

In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was signed into law with the goal of helping state and local leaders improve their juvenile justice systems. These systems play an important role in helping young people develop the life skills they need to be successful. However, not all efforts have produced the same results, and the consequences can have negative effects on at-risk youth, their families, and the communities they live in.

We don’t live in a perfect society; and sometimes mistakes are made. But regardless of the circumstances surrounding a bad decision, every kid deserves the opportunity of a better path forward. Yet it’s been 15 years since the law to support these programs has been reformed. It’s long past time for Congress to update the law and ensure state and local leaders have the tools they need to develop effective juvenile justice programs.

That’s why I, along with my colleague and our Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA), introduced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017. This bipartisan legislation sets kids up for long-term success by providing state and local leaders the flexibility they need to help at-risk youth and improve public safety.

We want to help state and local leaders as they develop ways to enhance community engagement and keep kids out of the system. This bill does that by improving support for prevention services and requiring the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to prioritize what works — using evidence-based strategies and current, reliable data to help reduce juvenile delinquency.

H.R. 1809 also improves oversight and accountability — requiring the OJJDP to provide Congress with an accurate and transparent account of juvenile justice efforts going on across the nation. To help limit waste and fraud in the system, the bill requires the Department of Justice to assess whether or not juvenile justice programs are complying with the law, and enhances oversight of taxpayer dollars to ensure they are being used responsibly.

Making sure kids who find themselves in difficult life circumstances avoid a life of crime is a collaborative effort. It requires parents, teachers, and state and local leaders who are engaged in their communities and targeting support to the kids who need help the most. We must do everything we can to help them in this effort — ensuring more kids have the resources and acquire the skills they need to turn their lives around and grow into productive, successful members of society.

The substitute amendment I am offering makes minor technical changes to the underlying bill. I urge my colleagues to support the substitute, as well as the underlying legislation.

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