For the first time since 2002, the law governing national juvenile justice standards has been reauthorized by Congress. The bill will now head to President Trump’s desk, possibly ending a long string of disappointments for juvenile justice advocates who tried in vain to update the law during the administration of Barack Obama.
President Trump has not yet vetoed a bill. His two most recent predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush, vetoed 12 bills each in their eight years in office.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) sets basic standards for state juvenile justice conditions in exchange for a modest formula grant from the Justice Department. 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.
Earlier this week, the Senate agreed to a version of the bill that would also reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act for two years. Today, the House approved the same bill by voice vote.
The version headed to Trump’s desk does not include one of the provisions long heralded by advocates: a phasing out of what’s known as the valid court order exception, or VCO. Per JJDPA, a youth cannot be detained for committing a status offense – something that would not be considered a crime for an adult, such as truancy or running away.
Under the VCO exception, a system could lock up a youth for a status offense if he or she was court ordered by a judge to refrain from that behavior.
A three-year phaseout of the VCO was included in several Senate reauthorization bills during the Obama administration. The idea was endorsed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the membership organization that originally fought to include the VCO exception in 1980.
The VCO exception was opposed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who refused to approve JJDPA with that clause in it. Senate leadership would not put the bill up for a floor vote, so ultimately leaders on the reauthorization removed the phase-out.