Back to News & Commentary

A Good Day for Juvenile Justice Reform in Congress

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
Share This Page
December 17, 2009

Earlier this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to reauthorize the key federal juvenile justice law – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). This landmark law has provided states and localities across the country with standards and support for improving juvenile justice and delinquency prevention practices – putting in place important safeguards for youth, families and communities – for 35 years.

Today’s vote is an important victory for children and forward-looking juvenile justice policy. The legislation makes a number of important improvements to provisions in the current law that are discussed in a favorable editorial in today’s New York Times – De-Criminalizing Children. We were particularly happy that the legislation will phase out a loophole in existing law that has allowed youth who commit so-called “status offenses” (e.g. truancy, violations of curfew, running away, etc.) to be incarcerated.

Throughout the country, children who are prosecuted through juvenile courts for status offenses are subject to boilerplate conditions of release, such as school attendance or obeying teachers. Unfortunately, the circumstances that lead a particular child to commit his or her first status offense often go unaddressed (e.g. unmet social needs or problems at home, including physical and/or sexual abuse), and, predictably, the child often commits the same offense again landing in secure detention as a result.

Placing children with truant behavior in juvenile facilities is a bad practice that greatly reduces the chances of school engagement and achievement. Girls in particular have been disproportionately affected by the current loophole, representing 14% of delinquent children in custody, but 40% of status offenders in custody. Girls often run away because of unstable or abusive home environments, making incarceration a particularly cruel and illogical response to their situations. Thankfully, the legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee today will finally help to end this harmful practice.

Also worth noting, the Committee debated and voted on an amendment from Ranking Member Sessions (R-AL) that would have modified current federal law by taking the decision of whether a youth should be prosecuted as an adult for an enumerated list of crimes away from neutral federal judges and instead placed the decision with prosecutors. This amendment was rightly rejected.

While we all can take a moment to celebrate today’s vote in support of juvenile justice policies we know to be effective, both in terms of public safety and in breaking the “school-to-prison” pipeline, it reminds us that there is still much work to do in the coming year to actually getting this, and other legislation like the Youth PROMISE Act, passed and signed into law.