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A Great Morning for Juvenile Justice Reform

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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July 31, 2008

Great, great, great news! (How often do we get to say that, huh?)

Earlier this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee met and passed, by a voice vote, reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Since the 1970s, this landmark law has been providing critical protections for youth who find themselves in the criminal justice system.

Not only was an important bill advanced, but it was actually strengthened by an amendment that was offered by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and adopted on a bipartisan vote (listen, I’m as surprised as you, dear readers). The Cardin Amendment corrects a loophole in the JJDPA that allows so-called “status offenders” — youth whose offenses would not be considered criminal but for their age — to be placed in detention under certain circumstances.

What are status offenses you ask? They include things like violating curfew, being truant from school and running away from home. Studies have shown that there are better alternatives to confinement and more appropriate interventions for these young people that could draw them away from the school-to-prison pipeline and towards becoming productive members of society. Sen. Cardin deserves thanks (as do the 10 other Judiciary Committee members who voted in favor of the amendment) for helping to make sure this will happen.

Surely that must be all right? Amazingly enough, no! Last night, there was concern over a proposed amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona that would have given prosecutors vast powers to try youth in the adult system (PDF). This would have been a real poison pill, but, at the last minute, Kyl chose not to offer it (something about waiting until the legislation gets to floor). I like thinking that maybe he saw the writing on the wall. If not that, then hopefully he recognized that that putting youth into the adult system not only makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse behind bars, but also greatly increases the chances that they will commit crimes down the road.

All in all, it was a great morning for those of us who care about improving the juvenile justice system.

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