ACTING ASSOCIATE ATTORNEY GENERAL
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
OJJDP NATIONAL CONFERENCE
“JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN:
A VISION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY”
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2000
Good morning! I'm very pleased to be with you today to talk about the issues we face in this country in ensuring justice for children.
We certainly can take satisfaction in the progress that's been made over the past several years in finding solutions to the problem of juvenile crime. Despite the continued growth of the juvenile population in this country, violent crimes by juveniles are at their lowest levels in decades. Juvenile arrests for murder are down by almost half. And a recent survey found that drug use by teenagers is down significantly since 1997.
All of you here today share in the credit for this progress. And I want you to know that, at the Department of Justice, we recognize how critically important your work is, and we appreciate your efforts on behalf of America's children.
But despite your best efforts, we continue to face serious challenges in preventing delinquency, improving the juvenile justice system, protecting children from violence, and truly serving the needs of kids in this country. I'd like to highlight just a few areas that I believe need a greater focus if we're going to continue to make progress in ensuring justice for children.
First, as Wilma Lewis emphasized, we've got to increase our focus on prevention. We need to make our legislators and other key policy officials aware of the tremendous potential of prevention programs in reducing crime. OJJDP programs and research have shown that kids who stay in school, get involved in positive activities, and have positive role models, are not going to be out on the streets committing crimes.
Polls last year by the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that both law enforcement and the public agree on the importance of prevention. Nine out of 10 police chiefs polled agreed that, “If America does not make greater investments in after-school and educational child care programs to help children and youth now, we will pay far more later in crime, welfare, and other costs.” But we need to do a better job of convincing legislators to make that investment.
Second, at the other end of the scale, we must focus on appropriate treatment for the relatively small number of juveniles who commit violent or serious crimes. We have to make sure our juvenile justice system has “teeth” — that it's not just a paper tiger, that it holds kids accountable, and sets appropriate sanctions.
But at the same time, we've got to make sure it's fair — for example, that every juvenile is properly represented in delinquency proceedings. That's why we support the work that's going on in the area of indigent defense to help ensure equal justice for every juvenile. And we need to analyze and respond to recent studies documenting troublesome racial disparities in how our juvenile justice system deals with our young people.
We've also got to make sure we work together with social services, educators, the treatment community, and others to develop comprehensive programs to help troubled youth. As you know, most serious, violent juvenile offenders have multiple problems, like drug use, school failure, precocious sexual activity, gang involvement, and mental illness. We've got to make sure we address all those issues, in addition to wrongdoing. And we've got to get the family involved, as well.
Third, we've got to teach kids how to solve problems without resorting to violence. OJJDP supports a number of outstanding efforts to implement conflict resolution programs in schools, juvenile institutions, and other settings. These programs give kids tools for solving problems before they explode into violence. And we need to make sure all kids — especially those at high risk for violence — have access to this training.
Fourth, we've got to increase our efforts to educate kids about the dangers of illegal drugs and alcohol. Though we've made progress in reducing cocaine and marijuana use by young people, the use of new, so-called “club drugs” like Ecstasy is growing, often with lethal results.
And we've got to figure out how to teach kids that alcohol — particularly before getting behind the wheel and driving — can be deadly. The most recent Drug Use Survey shows that young people — especially high school seniors — are not getting this message and that alcohol use is up in this age group.
Through OJJDP's Combating Underage Drinking Program, we're focusing resources on this problem. The program provides grants to every state to support alcohol use prevention programs for young people and to help states enforce laws prohibiting sales of alcohol to minors.
Finally, we need to know more about the implications of incarcerating serious juvenile offenders who have been waived to the criminal justice system. The number of juvenile offenders in adult correctional facilities represents a very small percentage of the correctional population in the United States. Nevertheless, a recent study found that the juvenile population in adult prisons has tripled since 1990.
We need to know more about how corrections officials are dealing with juveniles sentenced to adult facilities. We need to know more about the impact of these policies on juvenile offenders and on the correctional system itself. And we need to know what special programming or other resources are effective in dealing with juveniles in the adult system.
Preliminary research suggests that juveniles who are sentenced as adults have higher rates of recidivism than juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent. We need to learn more about the implications of this politically popular but perhaps misguided policy.
I know you're going to be looking at these and other important issues over these next few days. And I hope that you'll take what you learn here and return to your communities with a renewed sense of optimism, a renewed commitment, and a renewed vision for ensuring justice for children. Thank you for all you're doing in this vital effort.