Bill Would Overhaul Federal Juvenile Justice Law

By Evie Blad — June 11, 2015 2 min read
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By Lauren Camera. Cross posted from Politics K-12.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who is the ranking member on the House education committee, introduced a bill Thursday that would overhaul the federal juvenile justice law, which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

The legislation is based on a bipartisan Senate bill that was introduced last December by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Among other things, that piece of legislation sought to ensure the continuation of students’ education while incarcerated, create guidance for states on how to reduce racial disparities among incarcerated youth, and improve standards for detaining youth so that they aren’t held with or near adults.

The reauthorization proposal introduced by Scott on Thursday strengthens those core ideas and includes new provisions as well.

For example, the measure would eliminate the exceptions to when youths can be held with or near adults, and would require states to take measurable steps to reduce racial disparities in their juvenile justice systems.

The measure would also strengthen protections for youths who commit what’s known as “status offenses"—offenses that only apply to minors whose actions would not be considered offenses if they were adults. That includes things like skipping school, running away, and possession of alcohol. Under the current law, status offenders may not be held in secure detention or confinement, but there are several exceptions, including allowing some to be detained for up to 24 hours.

In addition, the bill would phase out various confinement practices that some consider dangerous, such as isolation that lasts longer than a few hours.

The measure would also create a new grant program for communities to plan and implement evidence-based prevention and intervention programs specifically designed to reduce juvenile delinquency and gang involvement.

“We have documented the power evidence-based policies have in both reducing crime and saving money, and we have realized the role that trauma plays in the lives of our disengaged youth and what it takes to get them back on the right track,” said Scott. “The Youth Justice Act builds on the strong framework of our colleagues in the Senate, and takes suggestions from our nation’s leading juvenile justice advocates on how we can make our system even safer and more responsive to our youth.”

The bill introduction comes on the heels of the suicide this week of Kalief Browder, a young black man who accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16 years old and subsequently held at Rikers Island for three years without ever being charged.

So does the bill have a shot?

Well, in April, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, met with top Congressional Black Caucus leaders to discuss criminal justice reform in the wake of a series of cases in which black men were shot by police or died while in their custody. But there haven’t been many additional signs that House Republican leadership is interested in the subject.

However, there is a big bipartisan push on the other side of the Capitol to address the entire criminal justice system. If that charge, which is being led by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Corey Booker, D-N.J., gets momentum, it’s feasible that at least some of the provisions in Scott’s bill would be addressed.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.