Lone Senator Blocks Action on Juvenile Justice Bill

By Christopher Zoukis

When the U.S. Senate met last month to take up a bill reauthorizing the main federal law on juvenile justice standards, prospects for the measure seemed good.

A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators co-sponsored the reauthorization bill (S. 1169), but despite supporters’ expectations for at last being able to reauthorize the law, Senate procedures allowed a single member objecting to a single provision of the bill to stall action on the measure, whose fate now remains questionable.

Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) was one of its two lead sponsors of the February 11 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) reauthorization, and the measure had cleared committee by voice vote the previous July. 

The bill’s supporters sought quick approval on the Senate floor, and decided to use a Senate procedure that required unanimous consent. That’s when freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) voiced his objection to taking up the bill, effectively blocking Senate action on it.

Sen. Cotton objected to a provision that would have phased out over three years an exception to the law’s bar on sending status offenders to juvenile detention facilities. Cotton also raised concerns the bill would allow thousands of violent criminals qualify for early release.

Known as the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception, this was added to the JJDPA in 1980, with the support of a group of juvenile and family court judges. It allows such judges to send a status offender to a juvenile facility for disobeying a previous order from the judge, including orders related to what are status offenses.

As a result, even though the JJPDA seeks to end institutional detention of juveniles for a status offense like truancy, the VCO exception allows youth to be sent there for disregarding a judge’s order to attend school regularly. The VCO exception was intended to give juvenile court judges an added tool for dealing with repeat status offenders, but its use varies widely among states.

The JJDPA spells out four areas of care and custody protections for youth in state juvenile justice systems, and conditions federal funding for delinquency prevention programs on state compliance with those standards.

These include: keeping juvenile offenders out of adult correction facilities, or if that isn’t possible, keeping juveniles away from contact with adult inmates; working to reduce the disproportionately high presence in juvenile facilities of minority group members; and keeping out of juvenile corrections facilities what are known as “status” offenders – juveniles who commit offenses such as running away from home, truancy, or curfew violations, which would not be crimes for adults.

Only about half the states have adopted the VCO exception (some have banned it), and even in other states, many use it sparingly or not at all. Of the 7,466 times the VCO exception was used to send a juvenile status offender to a detention facility in fiscal year 2014, Arkansas accounted for 747, trailing only Washington State (with 2,705) and Kentucky (with 1,048). Ironically, the judges’ group responsible for adding the VCO exception to the law in 2010 changed its mind, and no longer supports it.

Senate supporters say they’ll try to work out Sen. Cotton’s objections and bring the bill to the floor again, but that may be difficult in what’s likely to be a crowded, shorter election-year schedule. In addition, a companion bill introduced in the House of Representatives has not even seen committee action yet.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com