Sen. Cotton Blocks Move to Pass JJDPA Again

WASHINGTON — A long-shot attempt to pass key juvenile justice legislation this year failed Wednesday when a lone senator once more objected to the bill.

Senate leaders tried to move a bipartisan reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (HR 5963) using a fast-track procedure that requires the support of all senators.

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But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who has opposed the reauthorization throughout the year, would not consent because of a provision that would limit judges’ authority to lock up some young offenders.

The JJDPA sets the core safety standards for juveniles that states must follow in order to qualify for federal grants. It also aims to prevent delinquency and curb racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice systems.

One of those core protections prohibits the detention of juveniles for so-called status offenses, behaviors such as truancy or running away that are only considered crimes because of a youth’s age. The reauthorization would phase out the valid court order exception that does allow youth to be detained for status offenses if they violate a valid court order issued by a judge.

If “a juvenile flouts the authority of the judge, that judge needs some mechanism to enforce his orders. That is no longer a status offense, that is contempt of court,” Cotton said.

The bill that was under consideration would allow states to apply for hardship extensions from the phaseout of the valid court order exception. The House passed its version of the long-awaited reauthorization in October.

The JJDPA has not been reauthorized since 2002. Since then, a growing body of research has pointed toward new evidence-based policies that would benefit adolescents and should be included in the law, supporters say.

“What we heard from juvenile justice practitioners around the country is that a lot of the policies that had been in place for dealing with juvenile offenders were stale and ineffective, that there were better ways to do business than were currently being supported,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, who has championed the reauthorization in the Senate along with Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.

The Act4JJ Coalition, which represents more than 180 national youth development and juvenile justice organizations, said it was “profoundly disappointed that one senator can stop the passage of this critically important bill.”

The coalition’s co-chair, Marcy Mistrett, also CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said in a release, “More than half the counties in Arkansas don’t even use the valid court order exception anymore; only five are responsible for more than half the detention of status offenders on a violation of a court order. Five counties should not drive federal policy for the entire country.”

The action on the Senate floor was a repeat of an earlier attempt in February to pass the Senate’s version of the JJDPA reauthorization. Since then, advocates and lawmakers have urged Cotton to change his mind.

Cotton said he would consider tweaks to the valid court order phase-out, such as a minimum age for detaining status offenders, but those ideas are unlikely to find favor with supporters of reform.

This story has been updated.