Juveline Crimes Tiptoe Into Congress

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Last year at this time, opinions about proposed juvenile justice legislation were splashed across newspapers, flashed on television screens and hotly debated in the halls of Congress. In the wake of more school shootings, the rhetoric often reached a fevered pitch, and got enmeshed in the controversies swirling around gun control and media violence. By the time Congress finally went home in late December, all efforts to pass significant juvenile justice legislation had failed.

This year, despite more school shootings in San Diego and elsewhere, the juvenile justice debates have maintained a low profile, with nary a word in Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call or the mainstream media. In this quieter environment, while taxes and education issues garner front-page attention, two significant pieces of juvenile justice legislation are making their way through the legislative process. 

This year, despite more school shootings in San Diego and elsewhere, the juvenile justice debates have maintained a low profile, with nary a word in Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call or the mainstream media.

First, for supporters of rehabilitation rather than punishment, comes the good news: The Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act of 2001 (HR 863), introduced by the chairman of the House subcommittee on crime, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), re-shapes the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) program. The goal of the program is to move from a punishment approach to juveniles who commit crime, to a more flexible approach that allows for a system of "graduated sanctions" that can include counseling, mental health services and drug treatment before moving on to traditional punishments such as probation and incarceration.

 

"This isn't get-tough legislation, this is doing it smart," says Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass). Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) extols the bill, crooning, "Can you believe it? A juvenile justice bill which includes language for mental health screening, support systems and interventions."

 

HR 863 successfully passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and is ready for action on the House floor. In its report language, the committee acknowledges that juvenile crime rates have been steadily dropping for years; the drop began in 1993 and in 1999 the juvenile arrest rate was the lowest in a decade. 

 

A hallmark of this legislation is the requirement that states must have in place, or agree to begin, a plan of "graduated sanctions" for juvenile offenders. "This reflects the advice of the researchers and expert practitioners," says Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). "This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a substantive bipartisan approach that will actually reduce crime and delinquency."

 

Texas is one of the first states to employ a graduated sanctions approach, and Texas Youth Commission Executive Director Steve Robinson believes in it strongly.  In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in March, Robinson said the Texas system has seven levels of sanctions; he is especially keen on the first level. "The youth is handled informally by the local juvenile probation department," he said. "We have provided increased funding for level one so that something happens the very first time we see a kid who is in trouble."

 

Prior to this approach, a young person in Texas could have appeared in juvenile court several times without the parents being informed. Now, judges and probation departments use an individualized team approach to assessment and intervention for first-time offenders.

 

Level seven is called the "last chance" and uses a blended sentence. The youth is incarcerated in a youth facility and provided with treatment until age 18, then is re-evaluated before a decision is made about a possible transfer to the adult prison system for the remainder of the sentence.

 

Barton Aronson, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., and a commentator for Findlaw.com, is among the advocates who favor the blended approach. If a youth responds well to treatment and support received in the juvenile system, he can begin to reenter society as a young adult at age 18, with continued supervision through age 21. But, as Aronson puts it, "If a murderous 15-year-old has simply hardened into a murderous 18-year-old, the court can impose an adult sentence, and send the defendant to an adult prison." This approach appeals to both the "get-tough" advocates, and those who prefer a treatment-oriented approach.

 

 

In this quieter environment, while taxes and education issues garner front-page attention, two significant pieces of juvenile justice legislation are making their way through the legislative process.

 

 

Yet Shay Bilchik, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, discussing graduated sanctions in 1997 (while heading the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Programs), cautioned,  "This system must be highly individualized to be effective.  States and systems will require substantial funding commitments to ensure adequate implementation."

 

While the approach to juvenile crime taken in the JAIBG bill is promising, the "get tough" stance has not disappeared. On May 17 Reps. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced HR 1900, the Juvenile Crime Control and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2001. Staffers on the House Education and Workforce Committee report that the bill is essentially a "re-introduction" of the House-Senate conference version of HR 1501, the 1999 Juvenile Justice bill which died in a House-Senate conference committee as Republicans and Democrats locked horns.

 

But just try to get information on this bill. In late May, HR 1900 was not yet on the Thomas website. Several staffers in the offices of the co-sponsors said they'd never heard of it. On the committee, the key staffers who do know about it were away. Yet a hearing is scheduled for June 6.

Several other pieces of legislation introduced this spring relate to juvenile crime. Rep. Jackson-Lee sponsored HR 75, the Give a Kid a Chance, Omnibus Mental Health Act of 2001. That bill allows the Department of Health and Human Services to provide grants to create or enhance programs that promote mental health among children and youth, with a special focus on early identification of and intervention in mental and behavioral health concerns. There is also Sen. Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) Protecting Civil Rights for All Americans Act (S 19), and Rep. Pete DeFazio's (D-Ore.) Youth Violence Prevention Act (HR 1397). S 19 is essentially a hate-crimes bill, which also includes provisions to strengthen delinquency prevention. HR 1397 is a gun safety bill.

Taxes and the Budget

Both the House and Senate adopted the Federal 2002 Budget Resolution last month, setting fiscal 2002 federal spending levels at $1.95 trillion, and allowing for a $1.35 trillion tax cut spread over 11 years. While there was a great deal of public posturing, partisan bickering and haggling over details, in the end this budget does not look a whole lot different than the one President George Bush proposed in April.

The budget "function" area ("function 500") that includes most spending on youth - such as education, training, employment and social services - totals $69.9 billion for 2001, and this budget resolution establishes a level of $76.7 billion for 2002 (a 10.9 percent increase).

On May 15 the Finance Committee marked up its version of a tax bill which includes a phased-in, refundable child tax credit, which reaches Bush's $1,000 level in 2011.

This proposal accommodates the president's new $900 million reading initiative, a $1 billion increase in Pell grants and much of the rest of his education budget. Also added above the president's budget proposal: a $7.59 billion reserve (far more than the president requested) for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a reserve of $227 million for the Family Opportunity Act of Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and a reserve of $28 billion over three years for additional health spending for the uninsured. _Most other budget categories, including youth employment, and juvenile justice, were untouched.

The dominant theme of most of the budget discussions was taxes. Three tax issues of particular benefit to children and youth have had some success thus far in the process:

A centerpiece of Bush's tax proposal is a plan to double the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. Some child and family advocates have argued that without making this a refundable credit, it does little to help children living in poverty; nearly half of the benefits would go to the wealthiest one-fifth of all families, and only 3 percent to the bottom two-fifths. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) champions a refundable child tax credit, and dug in her heels early in the process, stating that the provision would "make or break" her support for the overall tax package.

On May 15 the Finance Committee marked up its version of a tax bill which includes a phased-in, refundable child tax credit, which reaches Bush's $1,000 level in 2011. The Children's Defense Fund estimates that the change would "lift 2 million children out of poverty."    

Adoption/Foster Care

The Hope for Children Act (HR 622), an adoption tax credit sponsored by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), sailed through the House by a vote of 420-0 on May 17. The bill doubles the maximum tax credit from $5,000 to $10,000, and increases the phase-out income level to $150,000. However, a key provision that would make the credit more helpful for families who adopt special needs children from foster care was dropped. Courtney Holden, executive director of Voice for Adoption, says the numbers of children waiting in foster care are increasing, from 118,000 in 1998 to 122,000 in 1999, and adds, "The historical intent of the adoption tax credit is to help move these children to permanency and the tax credit should help reduce the number of waiting children by making adoption of these children more affordable."   

May was National Foster Care Awareness month, and the House responded with a small gift for foster parents. HR 586, sponsored by Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) and joined by 49 bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow families who receive foster care payments to exclude these payments from their taxable income regardless of the source of the payment (as long as it was a state-approved entity) and regardless of the age of the foster child. Under current law, only payments made by nonprofit agencies qualify for exclusion, and only if they are for children under the age of 19. Yet many states are beginning to contract for services with for-profit agencies. "A family shouldn't be penalized because the state decides to change the way it runs its program." Lewis says.

Also, some families receive foster-care payments for disabled individuals over the age of 19. The measure passed in the House last month and has been sent to the Senate.

The Hope for Children Act (HR 622), an adoption tax credit sponsored by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), sailed through the House by a vote of 420-0 on May 17.

New Face for Domestic Policy

Sarah Gesiriech, former legislative aide to Sen. Grassley, is settling in to her new desk at the White House Office of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC). Gesiriech handled child welfare issues for Sen. Grassley and had a key role in the development and passage of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act. After 10 years on the Hill she had a brief stint working in the private child welfare sector. As associate director of the DPC, she will be responsible for the president's child welfare agenda, and will also work on issues such as education, housing, juvenile justice and faith-based services.   

The DPC, which began under President Richard Nixon 30 years ago, rose to prominence in the Clinton administration.