Group of Dems Push Status Offender Reform, Medicaid for Inmates, Ban on Solitary Confinement

Note: This article was corrected on April 30

2014 has seen a flurry of juvenile justice legislation, including bills that would, for the first time, require states to keep incarcerated juvenile offenders connected to Medicaid. Leading the charge has been Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).

Efforts to reauthorize the federal government’s central juvenile justice legislation – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act – have stalled in recent years. It appears that at least some Democrats are interested in pursuing more targeted changes.

Following are descriptions of three legislative efforts related to the juvenile justice field. All three of the House bills were submitted by Cárdenas, with a group of Democrat sponsors.

Medicaid Continuation

Bills: H.R. 4390 and S. 2211 (Chris Murphy; D-Conn.)

Current law: Current law forbids states from spending Medicaid dollars on pretty much anyone who is incarcerated, or institutionalized. For juveniles, that definitely means any youth who is commanded by a judge or juvenile justice agency to serve time in a locked correctional facility.

Juvenile offenders who are being detained before adjudication can maintain Medicaid eligibility, because they have not been convicted yet. In practice, most states do one of two things when Medicaid-eligible juveniles are detained and/or incarcerated: they suspend the juvenile’s Medicaid eligibility or actually dis-enroll them from it.

What would change: States could only suspend a juvenile’s Medicaid eligibility, they could not terminate it. The bills also require states to restore enrollment upon release unless there is a new determination of ineligibility.

States would still not be able to receive federal money for services inside facilities. Interestingly, the bills define a juvenile as anyone under the age of 19, meaning that 18-year-olds would be counted as minors.

No Detaining Status Offenders

Bill: H.R. 4123

Current law: The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 prohibits participating states from detaining youth for status offenses, including transgressions such as truancy and running away. But a judge can issue any juvenile a court order of probation that instructs the delinquent to attend school or not run away. Violation of that order can lead to detention.

This is known as the Valid Court Order (VCO) Exception, which some states and counties use frequently and others forbid by state or local law.

What would change: Cárdenas would give states one year to phase out the valid court order. This would eliminate allowable reasons, under federal law, to lock a status offender.

This does not mean it would end. There are judges and local jurisdictions, who answer to the state and not the feds, that regularly ignore the status offender portion of the JJPDA. In Texas, truancy is a misdemeanor crime punishable first by ticket, though repeated offenses could result in detention.

There is no comparable legislation on the Senate side yet. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) mentioned his intention to propose phase-out legislation to the Citizen Voice this month, but his staff did not return requests for more information.

Limiting Solitary in Federal Facilities

Bill: H.R. 4214

Current law: The federal government’s direct incarceration of juvenile offenders is limited only to those teenagers who are convicted as adults in federal court. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is not permitted to hold those offenders in its adult prisons; it must keep them in separate facilities.

It is permissible for BOP to hold those juveniles in solitary confinement during their time leading up to placement in adult prison.

What would change: BOP holds custody of very few juvenile offenders; mostly teens from Washington, D.C., Native American reservations and those rounded up in federal anti-gang operations.

The impact of this would be far more symbolic than real. As of February there was only one juvenile held by BOP in solitary confinement, according to BOP Director Charles Samuels, who testified on the matter before a Senate committee.

But the use of solitary for juveniles elsewhere in America is very much an issue. Nowhere more than New York City, where a major investigation led by reporter Trey Bundy exposed the frequent and jarring use of solitary for juveniles house at Riker’s Island, the city’s adult jail complex.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint.

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