The following op-ed was co-authored by Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national advocacy organization, and co-chair of the Act-4-Juvenile Justice Coalition.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, are known for having some of the sharpest elbows in the upper chamber. The time has come for both men to take that no-nonsense approach to protect our nation’s children.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, first passed in 1974, is a model partnership between the federal government and the state that has served a crucial role in protecting children held by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, its last iteration was allowed to lapse in 2007 and repeated efforts to reauthorize the legislation have fallen short.
From its outset, the JJDPA mandated that children held solely for “status offenses”—that is, acts that are illegal only because they were committed by someone under the age of 18, such as running away from home, skipping school or breaking curfew—may not be detained in juvenile jails. The law also includes crucial provisions that require minors be separated by “sight and sound” from adult offenders during any detention. Additionally, it calls on states to collect data on observed racial and ethnic disparities.
This is hardly radical legislation. In fact, it long had been a broadly bipartisan proposal and garnered strong support from both sides of the aisle even in just the past two Congresses. Sen. Grassley partnered with a former prosecutor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to introduce a bipartisan reauthorization bill in the 113th Congress. In the 114th Congress, the House passed a similar measure, H.R. 5963 with a resoundingly bipartisan margin of 382 to 29.
Unfortunately, the Senate version of that bill, S. 1169, was held hostage by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Rejecting the established criminal justice research and evidence-based best practices, Cotton insisted the legislation allow for incarceration of 8- and 9-year-olds for running away from home. The objection delayed consideration of the bill, which died in the closing days of the 114th Congress.
The 115th Congress presents yet another opportunity for action. H.R. 1809, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, passed the House in late May by unanimous voice vote. Sponsored by Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., the measure updates and reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act by granting state and local governments greater flexibility to meet community needs; improving prevention support services; focusing on evidence-based strategies; and, ultimately, enhancing accountability and oversight.
The Senate version, S. 860, has again been introduced by Sen. Grassley, this time with 11 bipartisan cosponsors. Even President Donald Trump, in his much-contested budget, preserved current funding levels for JJDPA, signaling the broad support for updating this important law.
The bill’s value is further underscored by results of similar reforms at the state level. States like Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia already have demonstrated that evidence-based criminal justice policies and reforms can bring significant rewards. Juvenile justice reforms undertaken in six states have allowed a combined $50 million in budget savings to be reinvested in community-based services, improving public safety and reducing recidivism rates.
For the 50,000 children across the country who sleep every night locked in cells, what’s needed to bring this legislation across the finish line is a strong commitment from the Judiciary Committee and from the Senate’s Republican leadership to make the bill a priority and get it to the Senate floor. States are anxious to reaffirm this state-federal partnership that helps improve public safety and protect children. We look to Sens. McConnell and Grassley to make this a win for all of our children.