This piece originally appeared in The Hill.
Last week, in a rare example of bi-partisanship, the United States Senate unanimously reauthorized and strengthened the nation’s preeminent law protecting young people in the juvenile justice system – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).
Signed into law originally by President Gerald R. Ford in 1974, the JJDPA is 10 years overdue for reauthorization. The Senate’s action sets up a conference committee to resolve differences with the House version of reauthorization which was passed in May. House and Senate leadership should ensure that the conference committee does its work quickly and sends the bill on to the president for signature.
The JJDPA promotes efforts to reduce delinquency in America, to reduce disproportionate incarceration of youth of color, to prevent delinquent youth from being jailed alongside adults, and to keep status offenders – runaways and truants – from being locked up even though they have not been accused of a crime.
Before its passage in 1974, young people, some of whom were not even accused of crimes, were routinely incarcerated in adult jails where many experienced severe harm, including being sexually assaulted and suicide. Following the passage of the JJDPA, the number of delinquent youth in adult jails and incarcerated status offenders plummeted.
But in 1980, spurred on by advocacy from some juvenile court judges, Congress loosened protections against incarcerating youth for running away from home or truancy. The House bill would sensibly close that loophole.
The Senate bill nearly foundered over this issue, with a lone senator, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), holding up passage for years while he fought to allow for the continued incarceration of status offenders. When it was proposed to allow locking up such non-criminal youth, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in turn held up the consent motion. Paul’s recent acquiescence allowed the bill to move out of the Senate with unanimous consent.
When we ran Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice agency, it was still legal in the District to incarcerate status offenders and, unfortunately, some judges did just that. These young people, often the most vulnerable in the system, languished in detention alongside youth accused of actual crimes while the system failed to address the abuse, mental health and homelessness issues that often plagued them and their families.
Girls were hit particularly hard by this loophole as running away from home is the only arrest category where girls outnumber boys. Often sexually abused in foster care or group homes, system-involved girls flee to protect themselves from continued abuse, only to find themselves incarcerated by a system supposed to care for them. Thankfully, last year, Washington, D.C., joined half of U.S. states which either ban or shun the practice of incarcerating status offenders.
This is no small problem. Data reported in FY 2014 showed 7,466 youth were jailed for status offenses nationally. Ten percent of those status offenders were jailed in Arkansas, even though only about one percent of youth under age 18 in America resides in Arkansas.
Ironically, Cotton’s opposition counters the official position of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), which after studying the issue for decades has heeded the research and best practices, and now supports closing the status offender loophole. The House bill allows for a gradual, three year phase out of the practice of incarcerating status offenders and NCJFCJ has offered to provide technical assistance to states to help them implement this reform.
With the current opioid crisis and an uptick in violent crime in a few cities bucking the overall downward trend in violent crime nationally, now is not the time to backslide on helping young people make better choices. Thanks to the good work of the House and Senate, JJDPA reauthorization is closer to the president’s desk than it has been for a decade. It is time to reauthorize this important bill and close the loophole that allows vulnerable youth not even accused of crimes to be incarcerated.
Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice and former Director of Washington, DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). Marc Schindler is Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute and former DYRS Interim Director.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill.