Another Year with No Juvenile Justice Reauthorization

The advocates are Charlie Brown. Congress is Lucy. And the football is the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

Once again, momentum was established on a bill to update the bill that sets minimum federal standards for operation of state and local juvenile justice systems, particularly in regard to which youth are confined and where they are confined.

A Senate bill had the backing of the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. For the first time in more than a decade, the House actually marked up and passed a bill. Conservative and Libertarian policy shops had joined the traditional juvenile justice advocates in Washington to push for passage.

And still, we will head into 2017 without reauthorization.

From mid-September (when the House passed its bill) until earlier this week, Sen. Tom Cotton was a one-man impediment to passage. He opposed the bill’s most substantial reform of existing law.

Cotton believes the argument is faulty, and that valid court order exception (VCO) youth are confined not for the status offense, but for the violation of a court order. And he is technically correct on that point: it exists to enable judges to deal differently with chronic status offenders.

That was the concern argued in 1980 by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges when it led the campaign to get a VCO exception into JJDPA. Six years ago, the council reversed course and joined the push to get VCO out of the act.

After several attempts to soften the language on VCO phaseout, the Senate bill leadership capitulated this week and just took it out. Better to have some reauthorization on the books as one administration gives way to another, especially considering that the House appropriators have zeroed out juvenile justice for a couple of years now.

Cotton lifted his hold in time for a hotline vote in the Senate. And another Senator, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), stepped into his place with concerns about more inclusion of tribal youth in the bill, a concern Barrasso had raised last year as well.

Barrasso ultimately lifted his hold, but it was too late. The version without a VCO phaseout had to go back to the House for approval, and the chamber adjourned before that could happen.

So what comes next? There is reason to believe reauthorization will have continued support in the House, where Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) takes over for the retiring John Kline (Minn.) as chair of the Education and Workforce Committee. As we’ve mentioned before, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) supports federal attention to  juvenile justice in his Better Way platform.

In the Senate, it is less clear what might change in the bill’s favor. Cotton is dug in against the VCO phaseout, so presumably the choice comes down to moving a bill without it again, or the far-less-likely prospect of getting a floor vote. On the bright side, it appears that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has become an strong ally. When the VCO phaseout was cut from the bill, he initially placed a hold in opposition to that.

The executive branch has little to do directly with reauthorization until it’s passed, but it is worth noting that this administration vocally endorsed the idea. We don’t think you’ll see the Trump Administration backing reauthorization with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as Attorney General.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1108 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.