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Teaching An Old Bill New Tricks

Teaching An Old Bill New Tricks

As a result of a combination of legislative gridlock and election-year rhetoric about rising crime rates, no major changes to the criminal justice system have made their way out of Congress. Yet, on September 22, the House of Representatives quietly—and overwhelmingly—passed an impactful justice system reform measure with a vote of 382 – 29.

The bipartisan Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act (H.R. 5963) was introduced by Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) on September 8. The legislation strives to retool the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has been expired since 2007. After receiving unanimous approval by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on September 14, the bill now awaits a floor vote.

When the JJDPA was first passed in 1974, it withheld federal funding from states that hold minors in adult prisons. Unlike previous incarnations of the law, however, the newly approved Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act would extend that same protection to juveniles who have been charged with adults crimes but are still awaiting trial.

This updated legislation would also prevent states from locking up minors for status offenses, crimes that are only considered crimes because of the age of the offender, such as truancy or breaking curfew. In addition, the law would extend to cases in which minors are charged with only a status offense but jailed for violating a court order connected to the case. Previously, those cases were considered an exception, known as the “Valid Court Order (VCO).”

The Senate version of the bill has made it out of committee and has received virtually unanimous support. Despite its initial success, it still faces an obstacle in Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who singlehandedly blocked the measure from being put to a quick voice vote. Cotton objected to phasing out the provision in the Act that allows status offenders to be locked up under certain circumstances. Cotton’s home state, Arkansas, also incarcerates minors for status offenses at a disproportionately high rate.

Still, the bill’s passage through at least one chamber comes at an unexpected time: weeks before the highly-anticipated general election. From the intense Republican primary race to Donald Trump’s doomsday speech at the Republican National Convention in July, the specter of rising crime across the country has become a prominent issue on the campaign trail. Accordingly, the chances of passing substantive criminal justice reform at the federal level have faltered.

However, despite the status of many earlier attempts to reform the adult prison system, the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act currently enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Since its conception in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act has provided federal grants to states that adhered to a number of core principles, such as not detaining juveniles in adult facilities; not detaining juveniles for status offenses; and not detaining juveniles in ways that would differ on the basis of race. Over time, however, loopholes were added to the legislation. The reauthorized bill aims to close these loopholes.

If the updated bill passes, states that do not comply with the new law could choose to forgo a portion of their federal funding. The bill would also mandate states to collect data on racial disparities at all stages of the juvenile system, then present a strategy for addressing those shortcomings. Another important component of the bill requires states to ensure that academic credits and transcripts are transferred between schools and juvenile detention facilities in a timely manner. Furthermore, children will receive full credit toward graduation for any schoolwork completed while incarcerated.

As reforms go, the changes being proposed are far from radical. “This is the floor, the minimum of how we should treat children,” said Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which has been lobbying Congress to pass the bill since 2007.

This updated legislation takes steps to ensure a smoother transition out of juvenile-justice programs and into education programs. By providing funding for delinquency prevention and gang-intervention programs, while also requiring states to report data on juvenile recidivism rates, states might be in a better position to address some longstanding issues in their justice system and their communities.

- Patrick Lin

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