The impact of silence: The incarceration of children who have committed no crime
Congress has recessed for the summer without passing any justice reform—not in the criminal nor juvenile-justice arenas. Neither the Sentencing and Corrections Reform Act (SCRA) nor the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)—both bills with bipartisan support—were able to be passed into law before the long summer recess.
While Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, took to the floor the last week Congress was in session, making persuasive arguments for sentencing reform, the only voice that remains heard on juvenile-justice reform is that of its sole opposition, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
The JJDPA has been protecting children in custody and building stronger community supports since it was first authorized in 1974. Its first order of business, 40-plus years ago, was to remove children from youth jails and prisons who had committed no criminal act, but rather engaged in risky behaviors of youth such as truancy, curfew violations and incorrigibility, otherwise known as status offenses.
In the 1980s, judges added an exception to that protection, arguing that if a status offender failed to comply with a valid court order issued by a judge, then the judge could securely detain him or her for a short period of time. Since then, a robust and uncontested body of research has uniformly called for the end of the valid court order, citing the many harms that occur to a child during a period of detention, and listing significant alternatives that are more effective. For example, a child who is detained for being truant is 14.5 times more likely to drop out of school—a result that yields the exact opposite outcome of what we would like to happen for that child. As such, many judges have reversed their position and are now calling for the end of the use of valid court orders to detain status offenders.
Since family court judges called for the phase-out, 34 states have dramatically reduced their use of the valid court order, with 24 not using it at all and 9 using it less than 100 times a year. Arkansas used the valid court order exception 747 times in 2014. Only two other states used it more often, and one (Kentucky), has since passed a law that prohibits its use.
The JJDPA has gone unauthorized for since it expired in 2007, which has led to a dramatic reduction in its funding. We have the opportunity with wide state and community support (everyone from law enforcement to judges, prosecutors, and faith based organizations), and the research to back up the improvements that reauthorizing this bill would make. There is no excuse why we should not be able to get this modest bill through Congress this session.
Six months ago, 99 senators supported this bill during an attempt for a vote through unanimous consent, yet failed due to Sen. Cotton’s lone opposition. It’s not a partisan issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called for its passage in his recently released Anti-Poverty Plan entitled “A Better Way.” Passing this bill should have been an easy win before two national conventions where both parties could have celebrated that they were doing something positive for children and spending precious federal discretionary dollars wisely.
Instead, we sit in Washington, with the lowest congressional approval ratings in history. Despite support from top congressional leaders, we remain without a vote for some of our country’s most vulnerable children.