Juvenile Justice Reauthorization Could Happen as Early as Tomorrow

A bill that would finally update the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), after more than 15 years, appears headed for passage as early as Tuesday.

UPDATE: The bill has passed the Senate, and now heads to the House of Representatives for approval.

The act, which sets basic standards for state juvenile justice conditions in exchange for a modest formula grant from the Justice Department, has gone without a reauthorization since 2002. Both chambers of Congress approved bills this year, but have been hung up a few times on differences in the versions – most recently, a disagreement on how to include the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) in this package.

The Senate has produced a five-year reauthorization bill that is going through the “hotline” process now, which basically means it will pass if no Senator places a hold on the bill today. This version provides a two-year extension for RHYA, which is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services and funds street outreach, shelters and transitional living for youth up to age 21.

If JJPDA survives a Senate hotline, it would go to the House tomorrow for another vote. Youth Services Insider is told that the House is likely to approve of this version, and could vote on it as early as tomorrow. It includes a section conceived of by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to incentivize prison reduction through the development of mentoring and opportunity programs developed by community boards. It’s a small version of a much larger spending plan for violence prevention championed by Scott called the PROMISE Act.

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Were it to pass, the bill would then head to President Trump’s desk for signature. It seems unlikely he’d shoot down a bipartisan bill of low public visibility, though his Justice Department appears less than enthusiastic about what’s come out of the reauthorization process. Over the summer, YSI asked Caren Harp, Trump’s administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, what she thought of the bills.

“We would love to see [JJDPA] reauthorized,” Harp said, in an interview for The Imprint “Kids on the Hill” special issue. “I can’t comment on which of those bills, if any, would be helpful to the field. But I’d certainly support any version that does good for the field.”

The meat of the JJPDA is its core requirements for state juvenile justice practice:

  • Not locking up youth for committing status offenses, crimes like truancy that would not be a crime for an adult.
  • Removal of juvenile offenders from adult jails and prisons, with very limited exceptions.
  • In those very limited exceptions, sight and sound separation of juveniles from adults in facilities.
  • Making efforts to research, identify and address disproportional minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system.

States receive a formula grant in exchange for compliance with those standards; failure to comply with one results in a 20 percent cut to that grant. For decades, every state except Wyoming participated in the JJDPA. In the past year, Nebraska and Connecticut have both opted out.

The funds for the formula grants declined from $75 million in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. It rose to $55 million in 2015, and ticked up to $60 million under the 2018 omnibus spending bill that Trump signed last winter.

The Senate Judiciary Committee moved a bipartisan JJDPA reauthorization bill several times during the Obama administration, with no reciprocal action by the House. More recent iterations of JJPDA renewal have not included a key provision championed by juvenile justice advocates during that time: a phasing out of the valid court order exception (VCO), a loophole that makes detentions for status offenses permissible if done in violation of a previous court order.

The VCO provision was opposed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Since leaders have been unwilling to put reauthorization up for an actual floor vote, in which it would easily pass, Cotton’s lone hold has prevented passage of JJDPA for several years.

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