House Gets Started on Juvenile Justice Reauthorization

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Note: This story has been updated

The House Committee on Education and Labor today held its first hearing on the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974,  the initial step toward possible passage of a House bill this year that could then go to conference with the already approved Senate bill, which has gained “strong support” from the Obama administration..

“We are here to take stock of how the current system is working, and what more we can do to provide our youth…with the supports they need to avoid criminal behavior and make our communities safer places to live,” said Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.).

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed its reauthorization bill in December, and advocates for reauthorization grew increasingly anxious in the ensuing months that there was no companion bill in the works on the House side. Today’s hearing – assembled by Miller (D-Calif.) and attended intermittently by 20 members of the committee – indicates that a reauthorization bill may make it to the floor of both houses this year.

The committee heard testimony from juvenile justice advocates and those who have been affected by the current act.

Tracy McClard of Jackson, Mo., delivered harrowing testimony about her son Jonathan’s experience as juvenile transferred to adult court in Missouri. Jonathan, who in 2007 shot but did not kill an abusive boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, was held in county jails while he awaited trial.

He was beaten by older inmates and encouraged to join gangs in order to survive, McClard said. She said he was also prescribed antipsychotic medication that caused him to hallucinate, and then was abruptly taken off the drugs. 

Jonathan was recommended for the state’s dual-sentencing program, under which he could have spent next four years in one of the state’s award-winning juvenile secure facilities. But the judge in his case rejected that plan and returned him to an adult jail.

In January of 2008, Jonathan hanged himself in his cell.

McClard asked the committee to expand the scope of two current provisions in the JJDPA: removal of juveniles from adult jails and sight and sound separation of juveniles from adult inmates when juveniles are held in adult jails. Neither protection is currently afforded to juveniles who are transferred into adult court. 

“When children are put in with adults they die, physically or mentally,” McClard told the committee.

Hasan Davis, the deputy commissioner for operations at the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, proposed the elimination of the valid court order exception to locking up status offenders, a measure which is already in the Senate version of the reauthorization bill.

An audit by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that Kentucky judges had used the exception 2,000 times in 2007, when only three other states reported using the VCO more than 1,000 times that year. Davis said the use of the VCO has been greatly reduced since 2007 because his agency has funded alternatives that judges can use in status offense cases, although he did not provide a specific figures.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which at one time was a principal architect of the VCO exception, announced recently that it supports elimination of the practice. The Department of Justice last week sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying it “strongly supports” its reauthorization bill, including the phase-out of the VCO exception.

The National District Attorneys Association continues to support a state’s right to use its own standards to determine which juveniles need to be detained or confined. NDAA Executive Director Scott Burns told the hearing “prosecutors, defenders and judges must have freedom to craft individual sanctions in order to protect the victim, the community and the juvenile offender.”

Burns questions assertions by some opponents of the exception that it is used extensively.

“When I call D.A.’s, they laugh when they hear about being accused of locking up kids for truancy,” Burns said after the hearing.

 Other witnesses included Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., and Michael Belton of Ramsey County, Minn., who discussed how participation in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) helped address their problems with unnecessary detention and racial disparities, respectively.

John Solberg, executive director of the Rawhide Boys Ranch, testified about what he sees as a “growing tension among community-based providers and out-of-home care providers” as funding for both approaches continue to dwindle at the federal and state level.

“I’m not here to make blame,” Belton said, when asked by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) what caused the racial disparities in Minnesota’s juvenile justice system. “I’m not sure how it happened ... but we need to get a different result.”

Click here to read all of the testimony from the hearing.