In February, Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senator Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) called upon the Senate to pass important juvenile justice reform by reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA is the only piece of federal legislation that governs juvenile justice across the country, and provides critical funding and guidance for states.
The JJDPA hasn’t been reauthorized in over ten years, despite the fact that this past decade has seen groundbreaking research on the most effective evidence-based methods to keep children out of the juvenile justice system, in school, and on a path towards rehabilitation. The bill has overwhelming bi-partisan support because it is based on what we as advocates, juvenile court judges, law enforcement, researchers, service providers, and educators have learned about how to keep families together, and children and communities safe.
The JJDPA faces opposition from only one Senator—Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Mr. Cotton’s concern lies in the bill’s elimination of the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception, a widely criticized provision that allows for children who commit status offenses to be incarcerated in juvenile facilities. It is difficult to understand why Senator Cotton would be in favor of a policy that those of us who work with children and families every day, and whose role it is to protect the public, ensure justice for victims, and rehabilitate children, so vehemently oppose.
Status offenders are youth who commit offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults—in other words, they commit acts that only kids can be punished for. The most common are truancy and running away. They are non-violent behaviors that pose no threat to public safety. Because these children pose no threat to public safety, the presumption is that they should not be committed. It makes little sense to incarcerate these children, who have committed no real crime, and place them in facilities alongside youth accused of more serious offenses.
More often than not, status offenders are our most vulnerable youth. They are girls running away from physical and sexual abuse in foster care, or forced to miss school because a trafficker is causing them to ‘work’, or children whose families do not have the financial resources to hire childcare and who are asked to stay home from school to look after younger siblings. Girls are over-represented among youth detained for status offenses—they are 16 percent of the overall detained population, but almost 40 percent of youth detained for status offenses, most often, for running away.