Today, Congress reauthorized the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for the first time since 2002. The authorization for this legislation expired ten years ago, a moment when youth offending and incarceration were vastly higher than today. We are pleased that the new version of the law will sharply limit ineffective and immoral conditions of confinement, such as solitary confinement of children and the contact of young people with adults in prison, both of which should never occur.
With new oversight of federal funding as part of the reauthorization, appropriators should aggressively fund programs that keep children away from juvenile courts and facilities in the coming fiscal years.
The passage of the bill has been delayed by Senator Tom Cotton’s insistence that states be permitted to incarcerate youth who committed status offenses, such as truancy, under a loophole called the Valid Court Order (VCO) exemption. Senator Cotton can claim a victory of which the rest of the nation should be ashamed. Among other compromises necessary to attain passage, the VCO exemption remains allowed under federal law. It is deeply disappointing that this bill did not eliminate the VCO exemption, and we call on the next Congress to eliminate it in January.
The widespread support for the bill emphasizes the commitment to a robust federal role in the fair treatment of youth since the first JJDPA passed in 1974. Under Administrator Caren Harp, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has neglected that role, particularly with regards to racial and ethnic disparities (RED) in the provision of justice. The RED provision, which calls on states to address racially disparate outcomes, was reauthorized; it is up to Administrator Harp to enforce it.
We urge President Trump to sign the JJDPA reauthorization, and for Congress to continue the work to improve it.