National Sign-On Letter Supporting Elimination of the Valid Court Order (VCO) Exception to the JJDPA

Committee on the JudiciaryUnited States Senate

Washington, D.C.  20510


Dear Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Specter, and Committee:


Thank you for your leadership on S. 3155, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008, which is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee next Thursday, July 17th .  S. 3155 is important legislation with the potential to protect many vulnerable young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and to promote effective prevention strategies, and we urge priority consideration by the Committee.  We are writing to ask your support for the Cardin amendment to S. 3155 to strengthen the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) core requirement by eliminating the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception.


The DSO core requirement has existed since the original JJDPA in 1974.  The DSO core requirement prohibits the incarceration of status offenders—youth whose offenses would not be criminal but for their status as minors (e.g., truants, runaways, and youth who violate curfew).  This requirement is in place to protect youth with non-criminal offenses from being locked up, where they are vulnerable to unsafe conditions and victimization and at risk of developing delinquent behaviors. 


Unfortunately, the VCO exception, which allows for the secure detention of youth with non-criminal offenses for a violation of a valid court order, has significantly undermined the DSO requirement. This exception has become the rule, with the total number of court petitioned juvenile status offense cases doubling between 1985-1994.  On any given day in 2006, 4,700 youth were placed in juvenile facilities for a status offense.  In 2004, 400,000 juvenile arrests were made for status offenses, not including truancy.   


One out of every three youth with status offense cases before a court are truant.  According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, between 1995 and 2004, there has been a 69% increase in truancy court cases. Research demonstrates that school-based services such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) are effective in addressing the educational and social needs of youth who are chronically truant.  Placing children with truant behavior in juvenile facilities is bad practice and greatly reduces their chances of school engagement and academic achievement.  Since 1977, there have been 22 class action law suits filed against juvenile corrections facilities due to the lack of access to and quality of educational programming.  A Department of Education study showed that 43 percent of incarcerated youth receiving remedial education services in confinement did not return to school after release, and another 16 percent enrolled in schools dropped out after only 5 months.


Girls are also disproportionately affected by the DSO exceptions, representing 14% of delinquent youth in custody, but 40% of status offenders in custody.  Girls often run away because of an unstable or even abusive home environment, making incarceration a particularly cruel and illogical response.  Community-based alternatives that provide family counseling, crisis intervention, and gender-specific programming are more appropriate responses to meeting the needs of girls and their families.  Because the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system has been on the rise over the last few decades, locked juvenile facilities are still ill-equipped to provide facilities and services to meet girls’ most basic needs and to protect their safety.


In addition to girls and truants, runaway and homeless youth are also criminalized by the VCO exception, and often end up languishing in juvenile facilities as long as youth with offenses involving weapons, auto theft, burglary, and theft.  Runaway and homeless youth consistently report family conflict as the main reason for leaving home.  Across studies of runaway and homeless youth, rates of sexual abuse range from 17 to 53 percent, and physical abuse ranges from 40 to 60 percent.  Community-based alternatives to detention, such as runaway shelters, family reunification programs, family counseling, and respite care have produced positive outcomes for runaways, including family strengthening, school engagement, employment, and delinquency prevention.  


While S. 3155 requires judicial findings and establishing a ceiling of  7 days for secure detention, we strongly support the Cardin amendment to phase-out altogether the VCO exception to protect status offenders from being locked up, where they are vulnerable to victimization and at risk of developing delinquent behaviors.  Youth with non-criminal behaviors can effectively be served by community-based and school-based interventions, which have demonstrated positive outcomes around school engagement, family strengthening, and delinquency prevention.  Indeed, a third of States have already eliminated the VCO and other States across the country have severely limited its use beyond what the current language in S. 3155 requires.  By eliminating the VCO exception, the Cardin amendment will advance best practices in the remaining states, and reduce the public costs associated with the overreliance on incarceration for non-criminal youth.


Given this information, we, the undersigned groups representing the fields of education, homeless services, youth services, and juvenile justice, support the Cardin amendment that would eliminate the VCO exception.  The Cardin amendment would phase out the exception over a period of several years, giving States time to shore up alternatives to confinement for status offenders.


Thank you for advancing reauthorization of the JJDPA and we look forward to working with you to make continued improvements to S. 3155 by phasing out the VCO exception to the DSO core requirement through passage of the Cardin amendment.




Alliance for Children and Families

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Civil Liberties Union

American Humane Association

American Psychiatric Association

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Break the Cycle

Campaign for Youth Justice

Camp Fire USA

Center for Children’s Law and Policy

Center for Juvenile Law and Policy

Child Welfare League of America

Community Action Partnership

Correctional Education Association

Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders

Covenant House International

Family Violence Prevention Fund

First Focus

Girls Inc.

Human Rights Watch

International Community Corrections Association

Justice Policy Institute

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Alliance to End Homelessness

National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

National Association of School Psychologists

National Center for Youth Law

National Center on Shared Leadership

National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Collaboration for Youth

National Council of Jewish Women

National Council of La Raza

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health

National Foster Care Coalition

National Indian Child Welfare Association

National Juvenile Defender Center

National Juvenile Justice Network

National Network for Youth

National Network to End Domestic Violence

National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union

National PTA

National Women’s Law Center

Parents Anonymous

Pendulum Foundation

Public Counsel

Public Education Network

Rebecca Project

School Social Work Association of America

Search Institute

Southern Juvenile Law Center

Southern Poverty Law Center

Teaching for Change

Voices for America’s Children

W. Haywood Burns Institute

Youth Law Center

Youth Represent


State Groups

Advocates for Children and Families (California)

Alabama Youth Justice Coalition

American Samoa Parental Information Resource Center

Center for Children’s Advocacy (Connecticut)

Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles

Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance

Connecting All Parents with School (Illinois)

Connections (Ohio)

Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth

Family Connection of Easton, Inc. (Pennsylvania)

Family Matters Parent Training & Information Center (Illinois)

Juvenile Detention Centers Association of Pennsylvania

Juvenile Justice Coalition (Ohio)

Juvenile Justice Coalition of Minnesota

Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois

Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency

Pacific Islands Center for Educational Development

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children

Rhode Island State Parent Information and Resource Center

Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey

Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Voices for Ohio’s Children

Worldwide Learning Curriculum and Consulting (Alaska)

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