A group of Republican and Libertarian groups spoke today in support of conservative-led juvenile justice reform, including an update to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).
“By not addressing criminal justice, from the ground level, with kids, we are missing an opportunity,” said Arthur Rizer, the justice policy director at the R Street Institute. “Conservatives hold up family as bedrock, but too often we are deaf to the basic needs of families. As conservatives we have to stop caring only about kids when they’re in the womb.”
Central to the discussion was the JJDPA, which has been due for reauthorization since 2007. Several attempts to reauthorize JJDPA have made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee since that year, only to stall before a Senate vote. The House Education Workforce failed to pass JJDPA bills until this year, when it quickly moved a bill to overwhelming passage in the full chamber.
The Senate attempted to follow suit by passing its version by unanimous consent, but that effort has been held up by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cotton opposes the bill’s phase-out of the valid court order (VCO) exception, the only permissible way to confine a juvenile for a status offense under the federal law.
R Street Outreach Manager Nathan Leamer, who moderated the discussion, described it as “shenanigans going on that keep it from being passed.”
“JJDPA has never been controversial before,” Rizer added. “I’m not sure why it is now, I thought this was one of those things we just kind of say okay to.”
Panelists at today’s discussion slammed opposition to the VCO phase-out, which is the lone caveat in the federal ban on locking up status offenders, kids who commit offenses that are only considered a crime if you are under 18. If a judge is court ordered not to repeat such an offense (i.e., truancy, running away), then the youth can be confined if he does it again.
“There is no good reason to jail a juvenile for committing a status offense,” said Joe Luppino-Esposito, a policy analyst at the Texas-based Right on Crime who has been dispatched to Washington to focus on federal issues. “That eliminates the whole point why we have a special system.”
Luppino-Esposito rejected the sentiment that some judges and systems lack effective alternatives to detaining repeat status offenders.
“That’s not a good enough excuse,” said Luppino-Esposito. “If the reason is no resources, the state needs to get the resources.”
Rizer, ostensibly addressing the lone holdout Sen. Cotton, said there is no disputing the research that using confinement for minor offenses is a bad idea.
“If you oppose JJDPA based on federalism grounds, I’m okay on that,” said Rizer, who is a Libertarian. “But if you object based on the VCO, you are being intellectually dishonest.”
But the groups represented on the panel may become critical partners to the more established juvenile justice advocacy community in Washington, if JJPDA is ever to get new life breathed into it. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has supported the bill, and it has a Republican champion in Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who said in opening remarks yesterday that he is still trying to get reauthorization done during the lame duck session.
If that doesn’t happen, the process begins anew in January. Assuming that the House is willing to push through another bill, success will likely rest on convincing Sen. Mitch McConnell to permit a floor vote on JJDPA to get around Sen. Cotton (if he’s still there; Cotton has been mentioned as a potential Secretary of Defense for President-Elect Donald Trump).
Right on Crime came to power after a sex abuse scandal in Texas’ juvenile justice facilities. The organization helped to deliver a major reform of the state’s system that shuttered several state prisons and forced local jurisdictions to manage all but the most serious and chronic offenders.
Another panelist, Christina Delgado, spoke about a growing interest in juvenile justice at FreedomWorks, a Libertarian advocacy group focused on grassroots organizing. Delgado said the organization would soon publish a juvenile justice paper for its followers to educate them more on the issues, and that it had already become a part of the organization’s justice platform.
“At the end of day, the reason they care is that they care about doing right thing, and about due process rights and liberty in general” Delgado said of FreedomWorks members. “The can see the situation that a child faces if they’re incarcerated.”