This article by Molly Knefel in Rolling Stone stirred up a lot of thoughts for me. In it, she reports that there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to re-authorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

That law, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), was passed in 1974 and has been updated and strengthened several times throughout its 40 years. In addition to establishing federal oversight for the states, it also set up core requirements for how states treat their youthful offenders – things like keeping kids out of adult prisons and addressing entrenched racial disparities – as well as a grant program to facilitate and incentivize states to meet those requirements. Since 2002, however, Congress has failed to reauthorize the law, and advocates say it’s long overdue for an update.

I’m pretty familiar with JJDPA because for almost 30 years I worked in community-based programs that were initiated back in the 1970’s when it originally passed. In addition to the things Knefel referred to above, the “juvenile justice” part of the act prevented children/youth from being locked up for status offenses (things like running away, truancy, etc that are only offenses for those under 18 years of age) and the “delinquency prevention” part suggested (and in some cases funded) alternative community-based interventions.

I say all that to remind you that there was a time in this country when we were able to pass laws like that. A lot of the funding attached to these initiatives was lost during the Reagan years. But the reason JJDPA languished without reauthorization for so long probably has to do with the hysteria fabricated in the 1990’s over the idea of a looming threat from juvenile super predators.

In 1995, John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton who coined the term “superpredator,” predicted that the number of juveniles in custody would increase three-fold in the coming years and that, by 2010, there would be “an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990.” Criminologist James Fox joined in the rhetoric, saying publicly, “Unless we act today, we’re going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up.”

These predictions set off a panic, fueled by highly publicized heinous crimes committed by juvenile offenders, which led nearly every state to pass legislation between 1992 and 1999 that dramatically increased the treatment of juveniles as adults for purposes of sentencing and punishment.

Last year the NYT did a retrospective on what happened and how the whole idea of “suprepredators” turned out to be a myth.

YouTube video

But the result wasn’t merely a reversal of everything JJDPA had tried to do. This myth fed into the escalating “war on drugs” and “get tough on crime” mentality of the 1990’s that spurred things like “three strikes” laws in our criminal justice system, “zero tolerance” policies in our schools and “stand your ground” laws in our communities. Over the last 20 years, it meant that thousands of young lives (primarily black and brown ones) were interrupted at best and ended at worst.

Due to a lot of hard work by community members, efforts by the Obama administration and concern from Republicans that this trajectory is not financially sustainable, we’re finally seeing some sanity re-introduced – like this bipartisan effort to reauthorize JJDPA.

Knowing the toll our detour into hysteria exacted, it’s a bit hard for me to celebrate this turn of events. I’m still caught up in grieving our losses. But this is one of those “teachable moments.” As a country, we’ve seen our tendency to buy into the hysteria of fear + anger take its toll on our sanity several times. The obvious ones that come to mind – in addition to this one – are the McCarthy red-scare and the invasion of Iraq in response to 9/11.

My hope would be that, as our media and political activists attempt to stir up the hysteria, we would learn to pause and ask some questions.

Sometimes the hysteria is simply about political power games. But oftentimes, there are lives at stake.

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