August 4, 2017

A long-standing federal law that rewards states with money for implementing policies that keep juveniles off the path to prison is nearing reauthorization thanks, in part, to lobbying from Carroll County Attorney John Werden.

Werden went to Washington, D.C., this year to push Iowa’s two senators to support the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was first adopted in 1974.

The law encourages states to keep juveniles accused of minor crimes out of jail and detention centers.

“All these dated practices we’ve eliminated simply aren’t cost-effective,” Werden said, “and they have some real possible negative impacts on youths who are locked up.”

An example: Juveniles who were found in public after curfew often faced arrest before the law was enacted four decades ago. And it was common for them to be locked up with adult criminals in jail.

“We don’t even think today we should do that, but back then it was common,” Werden said. “The main reason you shouldn’t do it is because it’s a big waste of taxpayer money. It doesn’t do anything. Those officers involved in that should be out doing something more important.”

The law also suggests that those juveniles who commit severe crimes should be kept out of “sight and sound” of adult offenders to keep them safe from harm and away from criminal influences.

The U.S. House voted to reauthorize the law earlier this year, followed by a recent “yay” vote in the Senate. States that follow the guidelines receive millions of dollars each year.

Werden said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who heads the Senate’s judiciary committee, was instrumental in pushing its passage.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national juvenile justice advocacy group of which Werden is a member, hailed the Senate’s vote in a press release this week and quoted Werden extensively.

“It’s critical we ensure that our communities have the necessary tools to help troubled youth get the coaching and assistance they need to be productive members of society,” Werden said in the press release. “This new legislation ultimately will result in fewer young people on the path to adult crime and prison. That’s a winning situation for everyone involved — and we couldn’t have done it without the leadership of Iowa’s own Senator Chuck Grassley leading the charge.”

The organization estimates that the initiatives can save up to $26,000 per juvenile offender, compared with the costs of incarcerating them for a year.