Amidst Intense Partisanship, a Glimmer of Light Shines Through on Juvenile Justice Reform

Last week the Senate took an important step in giving vulnerable kids a chance to turn their lives around outside the penal system.

In a rare unanimous vote, senators passed the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act of 2017. The bill funds programs that keep kids out of the criminal justice system and establishes national standards for protecting youth that are already incarcerated from further victimization, potential abuse, and, perhaps, future offenses.

Earlier this year, the House demonstrated its commitment to such reforms by passing a similar bill, the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act. Both bills will now have their differences ironed out in a conference committee. The House version phases out a provision in current law that allows minors to be locked up for noncriminal behaviors — skipping school, smoking cigarettes underage, violating curfews, and running away from home. The Senate bill does not. We believe the House version is the better bill.

Kids mess up all the time. They should not have to face life-altering consequences for making childish mistakes like skipping school.

Both bills include important federal policy reforms -- for example, more stringent screening of boys and girls who may have been exploited by human traffickers prior to entering the system or who may have otherwise been abused. Both would prohibit the shackling of pregnant girls in detention. They also call for greater data collection, compelling states to provide reports on the use of isolation on juveniles in detention facilities. Both would insure that kids are subject to as little interruption as possible in their education.

If the Senate accepts the House protections, young people like Sarah, who started in the family court system as a victim of parental neglect and abuse, could be helped.

Sarah dealt with the trauma of her chaotic home life by skipping school. To teach her a lesson, a judge sentenced Sarah to five days in a juvenile detention facility. But the punishment was misdirected, because the underlying issues that caused Sarah to flee her abusive environment were never addressed. And so she continued to skip school and run away from home. Sarah ended up spending 40 days over a three-year period locked up for truancy and breaking curfew without ever having committed a crime.

Kids mess up all the time. They should not have to face life-altering consequences for small mistakes. Such policies are detrimental to society as well as the long term well-being of the child. A common sense juvenile justice system that prioritizes prevention and alternatives to incarceration reduces costs to taxpayers and increases public safety.

During this time of intense partisanship, recognition among Democrats and Republicans that our nation’s children need and deserve additional protections is a heartening glimmer of light. A version of this bill is very likely to become law. We want the best version to make it across the finish line.

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