Bipartisan Juvenile Justice Bill Would Phase Out Valid Court Order, Demand Data on Isolation

A bipartisan bill to reauthorize federal juvenile justice policy and funding would phase out an exception permitting the detention of status offenders, and require states to report more information each year to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The bill, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee members Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was passed in 1974 and invites states to comply with four “core requirements.” These are:

  • Not detaining status offenders
  • Keeping juveniles out of adult facilities, with some exceptions
  • When those exceptions are made, youth are “sight and sound” separated from adults
  • States make genuine efforts to address and reduce disproportionate minority contact

In exchange for compliance with those requirements, states receive no less than $400,000 in federal funds, and more populous states typically receive millions. Forty-nine states at least try to comply with the act; Wyoming is the lone holdout.

The bill introduced today would phase out over three years the “valid court order,” an exception that permits courts to jail children for status offenses, which include truancy and running away.

While judges are not permitted under JJPDA to detain a youth directly for a status offense, a judge can issue a court order to any offender instructing them not to commit a status offense.

If the juvenile then commits one of the listed offenses, it would be permissible under the federal law to detain them. In 2012 alone, the exception was used more than 7,000 times, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

The bill would also require states to report data on several controversial issues regarding youth in detention or confinement. Among the reporting requirements:

  • Use of restraints and isolation in juvenile facilities
  • The number of status offenses who are detained, the underlying reason for the detention, and the average length of stay
  • The number of pregnant juveniles held in custody
  • The number of juveniles whose offenses occurred on school grounds

“This legislation will strengthen the main protections of the JJDPA, and improve the conditions and practices that can determine whether offenders leave our justice system as productive members of society,” said Whitehouse.

The Senate is expected to adjourn on Friday, which means that the bill will have to be reintroduced next year. Grassley will take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a reauthorization of the JJDPA in 2009, and included several significant reforms, including a three-year phase-out of the valid court order exception. That bill came on the heels of an announcement by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges that it would no longer support the use of the valid court order.

But the 2009 bill never received a Senate floor vote, and no companion bill ever even surfaced in the House. The last reauthorization took place in 2002.

At a Congressional field hearing in Rhode Island this summer, Whitehouse informed the audience that he would introduce “bipartisan legislation” to reauthorize the act “very soon.”

“This is the most important piece of legislation in this area,” Whitehouse said of the act, and there are “12 years of experience not incorporated into it.”

Click here to read the bill.

John Kelly is the editor of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.