September 9, 2009

APA Supports Reauthorization of Juvenile Justice Act on Law's 35th Anniversary

Calls on Congress to focus more on rehabilitation in light of psychological research

WASHINGTON—The American Psychological Association is calling on Congress to re-examine the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act based on findings from psychological research pointing to the importance of treatment and rehabilitation for young offenders.

Since the law was signed 35 years ago, the disposition of juvenile cases has shifted more in the direction of punishment, with some youths being tried in adult court, APA noted.

"Since incarceration is expensive and less effective at promoting healthy development than community-based alternatives, APA believes it should be a last resort for young offenders," said Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, APA's executive director for public interest. "APA recognizes the importance of reauthorizing this critical law and urges lawmakers to consider recent psychological research and address the significant mental health needs of the juvenile justice population."

A large body of developmental and neuroscientific research strongly supports a developmentally appropriate response to juvenile crime. Such factors as immaturity and vulnerability are characteristic of adolescence and should mitigate the culpability of young people for their actions in certain instances.

Additionally, recent research shows that those detained in the juvenile justice system experience diagnosable mental and behavioral health disorders at rates three to four times higher than the general population under age 18. And a 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office documented alarming reports of parents relinquishing their rights to the legal and physical custody of their children to juvenile justice agencies in the hope of obtaining critically needed mental health services for them. Similarly, in 2004, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform reported that individuals as young as 7 years old, some of them without charges pending against them, were being held in secure juvenile justice facilities as they awaited access to mental health services.

"In reauthorizing this law, Congress needs to effectively address the seriously troubling reports of parental relinquishment to juvenile justice agencies to obtain care by providing community-based mental health services for troubled youth," Keita said. "In so doing, we still need to provide an appropriate range of critical services in the juvenile justice system. In addition, we need to meet the goal of not housing individuals in secure detention facilities when they are not facing criminal charges."

APA also urged the federal judicial system to consider psychological research when examining sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders. In July, APA filed an amicus brief in the joined U.S. Supreme Court cases Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. These cases focus on juvenile sentencing and whether the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, which declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, should be applied to sentences of life without the possibility of parole for those who committed crimes as juveniles. APA’s brief supports the petitioners, citing evidence countering the position that a sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole is an appropriate level of punishment for juvenile offenders. The cases are set to be heard by the Supreme Court in its next term.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which is the nation’s most important law pertaining to the treatment of juvenile offenders and the prevention of delinquency among at-risk youth, was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on Sept. 7, 1974. It is the only law that sets out federal standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system. It also provides direction and support for juvenile justice system improvements.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.