Bill Would Ban Detention for Status Offenders

A ban on detaining juvenile status offenders and money for mental health services were added to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act passed today by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Passage came two weeks after Republican committee members boycotted a scheduled markup because of what they considered unjustified delays in consideration of judicial nominations. Still, the bill is unlikely to come to a Senate vote, or attract a companion bill in the House of Representatives, during this legislative session.

"This is a starting point for the next Congress," said Mishaela Duran, vice president of public policy for the National Network for Youth. "We can build support around this for introduction" next year.

The most controversial part of the bill was an amendment by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that eliminates use of "valid court orders to provide secure lockup of status offenders." If passed into law, states would have to phase out over three years the practice of detaining youth who had run away from home, were homeless or who had skipped school.

There are approximately 4,700 status offenders detained in juvenile facilities on any given day, according to Department of Justice data compiled in 2006. In some locations, they have languished for months; in 2003, status offenders detained by the city of Indianapolis were in facilities for an average of 229 days, according to the city’s office of fiscal and management analysis.

Some judges go as far as adjudicating and committing status offenders, Duran said, because that makes it easier to guarantee services for a child. But it also leaves the youth with a juvenile record.

The original reauthorization bill mandated that detention of status offenders occur only when all other options were exhausted, and that detention could be no longer than seven days. That change was not enough for the National Network for Youth, the American Bar Association or the Children’s Defense Fund, which, according to Duran, all opposed the bill until the amendment was added today.

The passage of the phase-out proposal, which was approved 11 to 7 with committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) abstaining, shocked many advocates at the committee session because a contentious debate on the amendment preceded the vote. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) expressed serious concerns about the proposal, then voted to approve it.

Feinstein’s proposed mental health grants for juvenile justice systems was approved more easily. State or local jurisdictions would be able to use the funds to screen juvenile offenders, treat them in facilities or fund diversion programs targeted at youth with mental health needs.

Feinstein included requirements that grantees maintain ratios of one psychiatrist and one psychologist for every 100 youth in juvenile facilities. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) suggested that would be difficult given the dearth of such clinicians in some places. Feinstein said she was open to adjusting the ratios, or simply requiring systems to find clinicians that would accept referrals.

This amendment "could save us billions" down the road, said Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), referring to the large number of juvenile offenders with mental health disorders who end up in adult penitentiaries.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) withdrew an amendment to give federal prosecutors — rather than federal judges — the power to try federal juvenile offenders as adults, deciding instead to introduce the change on the Senate floor.

"I think it’s safe to say this is the best outcome we could have had," said Miriam Rollin, vice president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, as she and fellow national juvenile justice advocates embraced in celebration outside the committee room.

Coburn, who has gained a national reputation for his practice of placing holds on legislation, was the only committee member to oppose the reauthorization bill. He notified his colleagues that he intends to place a hold on this juvenile justice reauthorization bill, in the unlikely event that it comes to the floor during this session.


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