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Bipartisan Measure Would Protect Juveniles In The Justice System


And here's something both sides of Congress seem to agree on; too many young people who come into contact with the justice system are getting shortchanged. Politicians want to increase funding and overhaul a federal law designed to protect juveniles. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Every year, more than 1 million young people get arrested and enter the juvenile justice system for offenses as varied as breaking curfew to murder. The system they encounter is a patchwork of dozens of state and local entities. Under a landmark 1974 law, the U.S. Justice Department is supposed to ensure only the worst offenders get locked up and that even those young people are kept apart from adult criminals. Justice is supposed to yank federal grant money from states that don't follow the rules. But whistleblowers have been telling Senator Charles Grassley the government's falling down on that job.


SENATOR CHALES GRASSLEY: We must remember that the true victims in all this are the young people, children who face an inadequate juvenile justice system.

JOHNSON: Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, are preparing to introduce a new bill. Their legislation would update the 40-year-old law known as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. They want to impose more requirements, more transparency and accountability for federal grant money. The lawmakers have been guided by people like Elissa Rumsey. Rumsey works at the Justice Department, and she's been blowing the whistle for years about improper practices in the Wisconsin juvenile system. Here she is talking publicly for the first time this month.


ELISSA RUMSEY: But I was blocked at every turn. The state officials denied there was a problem. After almost a year of back-and-forth with the state, I asked one of the officials to call me. He did. He said, Wisconsin is faking the data. He also said, watch your back.

JOHNSON: Mark Soler runs the Center for Children's Law and Policy. Soler says the safeguards built into the juvenile justice law are there for a reason.


MARK SOLER: I've seen the needless tragedies that occur when the mandates of the Juvenile Justice Act are not followed. This statute saves children's lives and prevents physical and sexual abuse.

JOHNSON: Like a 15-year-old girl in Ohio held in county jail for staying out overnight only to be raped by a jailer. Or, Soler says, this case in Idaho.


SOLER: Where a boy was put in jail for not paying $73 in parking tickets and was beaten to death by other inmates over a 14-hour period.

JOHNSON: Others in and outside the federal government have come forward to say the Justice Department hasn't wanted to hear about problems with state juvenile justice systems. Senator Grassley says that includes states playing down the number of young people they lock up as the feds look the other way.


GRASSLEY: Many states allegedly report whatever figures they want in order to keep money flowing, even if the data is false or incomplete.

JOHNSON: The department's inspector general and a federal office that protects whistleblowers are investigating. Karol Mason oversees the Justice Department unit that hands out the juvenile justice grants. She recently told lawmakers things need to change.


KAROL MASON: I can assure you that going forward, we are going to have a robust policy that is objective and transparent so that everyone going forward knows what the rules are. And we will hold every state accountable going forward.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.