Reauthorization of JJDPA Moves Forward

By Noel Tieszen

Before recessing for the August break, the U.S. Senate passed S 860 to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA), which provides federal funding to support evidence-based programs for youth who are involved or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. It also institutes several core protections that limit use of incarceration, protect youth from contact with adult prisoners, and address overrepresentation of youth of color in the justice system.

If enacted, S 860 would update JJDPA with increased emphasis on trauma-informed approaches to juvenile justice and focus attention on the unique needs of youth who have been trafficked, Tribal youth, and those facing mental health or substance abuse challenges. In addition, the bill would ban harmful practices such as shackling pregnant girls, make improvements to educational services for incarcerated youth, and strengthen accountability within the juvenile justice system.

This year’s bill comes 10 years after the most recent reauthorization expired. Passed with a voice vote, the Senate bill now goes to conference committee for reconciliation with the House version (HR 1809) passed in May.

Although JJDPA has broad bipartisan support, hurdles to reauthorization remain. Lawmakers and advocates expect that the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) provision will be a sticking point in negotiations. JJDPA’s DSO core requirement bans incarceration of youth for status offenses – behaviors such as truancy, running away, or possession of tobacco, that would not be illegal if committed by an adult. Unfortunately, the 1980 reauthorization created an exception that allows judges to lock up youth for status offenses if they violate a Valid Court Order (VCO). The House version of this year’s bill instructs states to phase out this VCO exception over three years; that phase-out provision was removed from the Senate bill.

Since the VCO exception was established, about half of U.S. states and territories have banned or discontinued its use. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which led the effort to establish the exception in 1980, now supports phasing it out. However, several states continue to use it liberally. Some, such as Washington and Kentucky, have used VCO exceptions to criminalize and incarcerate hundreds and even thousands of youth each year.

We encourage lawmakers to reconcile the bills quickly, and we further urge negotiators to ensure the VCO phaseout is included in the final legislation.