The Children Who Will Miss Thanksgiving

The First Step bill isn’t the only piece of justice legislation stalled in Congress. A bill to overhaul the Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act—affecting 45,000 children held in custody– is still awaiting the Senate’s OK.

As families gather tomorrow to break bread, give thanks and count their blessings, there are 45,000 children locked in secure facilities across this country who will be absent from their families’ tables.

Some 4,000 of them will be in adult jails.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Many states have made great strides in not only removing children from secure custody (a 55 percent drop in a little over ten years), but also in removing them from adult jails.  Some 70 percent of youth charged as adults are now detained in youth facilities.

All of this has happened while youth crime has fallen to near 40-year lows.

Sarah Bryer

Sarah Bryer

The children behind bars are overwhelmingly African American, Latinx, and tribal youth—a vestige of this country’s sordid history of criminalizing and forcefully separating children of color from their families.

As members of the U.S. Senate sit down to eat with their children and extended families, how many will be thinking of these tens of thousands of children, who are too young to cast their votes in elections?

Who are silenced behind the tall and imposing walls of the legal system.

Who were too often silenced as victims before their first arrest.

Who are deemed unworthy and too often, forgotten, by those who wield political power.

As the buzz increases about the possibility of a compromise sentencing reform package, another bill, amending the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), passed twice by the House, once by the Senate, sits quietly, patiently, invisibly—like the children it was designed to protect.

Marcy Mistrett

Marcy Mistrett

This JJDPA would help federal law on juvenile justice catch up to the states.  It would improve public safety by incentivizing prevention and early intervention, prioritizing families, removing children from adult jails, and helping states reduce their over-reliance on incarceration (especially for youth with non-criminal behavior like skipping school and running away).

The Act would provide a guiding framework to help states treat all youth equally so that we can eliminate the unfair racial and ethnic disparities in our systems.  And it would help states invest in community programs that work—by healing, holding accountable and, dare we say, loving these children.

This is a matter of priority—not partisanship, that could easily be settled with a five-minute conversation.  Yet, the shroud of silence continues.

So, dear Senators, as you sit with your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren please gather the will to do what is right; and bless those children who can’t be with their families, embraced, and fed this Thanksgiving.

Pass the JJDPA.

Sarah Bryer is the Executive Director National Juvenile Justice Network, Marcy Mistrett is the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.