WASHINGTON — Juvenile justice reformers still hope to see action this year on key legislation that stalled in the Senate several months ago.
Advocates continue to urge Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, to lift his hold on a bill, S 1169, that would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, the primary source of protections for youth in custody.
Cotton objects to a provision that would phase out judges’ ability to send juveniles to lockup for status offenses but said he would seek a compromise that allows the bill to move forward.
“We are still feeling hopeful there will be a resolution,” said Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition For Juvenile Justice.
The current version of the JJDPA prohibits the detention of juveniles for status offenses, behaviors such as truancy or running away from home, except in one case — if a juvenile violates a valid court order issued by a judge. The reauthorization would phase out the exception, meaning states would have to comply or risk losing federal grants.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who has championed the bill, continues to work with Cotton to find a resolution, said a spokeswoman for Grassley.
The timeline for action is tight because Congress will adjourn for much of the year beginning in July.
If the bill does not pass via a fast-track procedure known as unanimous consent, then it could have a full floor vote if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, places it on the schedule. Consideration on the floor opens the door to amendments and a potentially long slog as senators debate the measure.
“We want to exhaust every possibility before moving it to the floor,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Smoot and Mistrett agreed there’s much to be encouraged about, including strong support for passing the reauthorization from groups across the country.
“We’ve been really pleased with the great outpouring from folks across the country … It’s been wonderful to see the commitment our community has to this,” Smoot said.
Mistrett said she’s also encouraged by a spending bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that increases funding for some juvenile justice programs.
The message is getting through, she said, pointing to language in a committee report that called sections of the JJDPA “the backbone of programs assisting State and local agencies to prevent juvenile delinquency and ensure that youth who are in contact with the juvenile justice system are treated fairly.”
“In this really conservative, lean time, if appropriators are saying this is important, it’s just ludicrous we can’t get Congress to pass it,” she said.
House lawmakers have yet to introduce companion legislation to S 1169 but are expected to do so.
Smoot said supporters hope both the House and Senate bills can move before the summer recess begins.
“It definitely is a tight calendar, but we think that it can be done,” she said.