Congress originally passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 1974, but hadn’t reauthorized the law and its programs since 2002, even though its previous reauthorization expired in 2007. Backers of juvenile justice programs have been working for over a decade to renew and improve those programs.
Finally, in mid-December this year, more than 16 years after the bill’s last renewal expired, Congress acted again, passing the “Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018,” with an unusual degree of consensus. The Senate unanimously voted a five-year extension on December 11, as amendments to a companion House bill (H.R. 6964). The ultimately passed measure was jointly developed by Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
Because sponsors negotiated compromise solutions to potential sticking points, the bill came to the Senate floor under a fast-track procedure only possible when no Senator raises any objection. With the lame-duck session of the 115th Congress expiring at year’s end, avoiding lengthy Senate floor debate greatly helped passage. The House adopted the Senate-passed changes two days later, also by voice vote, clearing the bill for President Trump’s expected signature.
The original Juvenile Justice Prevention Act was intended to protect at-risk youth caught up in the juvenile justice system and to assist states in developing anti-delinquency programs. It created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the Department of Justice, which provides funding for state programs meeting federal standards.
Those federal requirements for state programs include: separating incarcerated youth from adult prisoners, keeping out of jail so-called “status offenders” (youth facing incarceration for offenses such as being a truant, runaway, or alcohol or tobacco user, which are not crimes for adults), and identifying and addressing causes of racial and ethnic disparities at all stages of the criminal justice system. All but three states (Connecticut, Nebraska, and Wyoming) currently participate in federally-funded juvenile justice programs.
Besides extending authorization for federally-backed juvenile justice programs for five years, the newly passed bill will make numerous changes in them. It mandates state screening for trauma in youths entering the criminal justice system; promotes continuing education for detained youth by making it easier to transfer credits they earn for courses taken while incarcerated; and promotes community-based alternatives to incarceration.
In addition, the new measure generally forbids judges to lock up status offenders; tells screening authorities to look for youth who may have been trafficking victims, suffer from mental illness or alcohol or drug abuse; and forbids using physical restraints on pregnant girls. Further, it directs the head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to make annual reports on states’ use of isolation and restraints on juveniles.
While earlier versions of the bill would have phased out an existing exception to the prohibition on judges sentencing status offenders to incarceration for juveniles who committed an offense which violated a valid court order, to overcome objections by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) that provision was dropped, retaining the exception.
The finally approved measure also extended for just two years, rather than the originally proposed five, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which funds programs for street outreach, temporary and transition housing, and counseling for homeless youth.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.