Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Landmark Juvenile Justice Legislation

December 17, 2009 3:12 pm

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Senate Should Pass Bill Quickly, Says ACLU

December 17, 2009

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WASHINGTON – A bill that updates and improves key elements of the juvenile justice system was passed today by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, S. 678, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, will reauthorize standards set by the original Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) and will continue funding to protect the rights of juveniles in the criminal justice system. The bill passed out of committee by a vote of 12 – 7.

“For 35 years, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act has provided states and localities with standards and funding for improving juvenile justice,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. “The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act will make much needed changes to existing law and ensure that we do a better job of protecting and reforming our at-risk youth. We now urge the Senate to swiftly pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act.”

Throughout the country, children who are prosecuted through juvenile courts for status offenses – offenses that would not be criminal but for the age of the offender – remain subject to boilerplate conditions of release and, unfortunately, the circumstances that lead a particular child to commit his or her first status offense often go unaddressed. Predictably, the child often commits the same offense again, landing in secure detention as a result. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act would phase out those boilerplate conditions, ensuring that many juveniles could avoid ending up in the “school to prison pipeline.”

During the markup of today’s bill, an amendment was offered by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) that would have given prosecutors – rather than a neutral judge – the authority to decide whether to prosecute a youth as an adult for certain federal crimes, including for attempting or conspiring to commit those crimes and for any related crimes. Thankfully, the amendment was defeated. The amendment would have undermined the original intent of the JJDPA, which was passed because lawmakers recognized children have unique and special needs that simply cannot be met by the adult system. Today, this is particularly true of girls, an often overlooked aspect of the juvenile justice system.

“The current juvenile justice system disproportionally affects girls, who represent 14 percent of delinquent children in custody but 40 percent of status offenders in custody,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Girls often run away because of unstable or abusive home environments, making incarceration a particularly cruel and illogical response to their situations. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act will address the root of these issues rather than continuing the punitive cycle so many of America’s youth are currently enduring.”

To read the ACLU’s letter of support for the JJDPA, go to:

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