WASHINGTON — The congressional recess is traditionally when juvenile justice advocates can expect to relax before legislators return to business on Capitol Hill. That has not been the case for many this summer.
The presidential election cuts into the time Congress has in Washington, District of Columbia, this session, and members of many organizations have remained at work throughout the recess, promoting legislation before Congress departs for their respective districts. If these bills stall in Congress, the organizations are preparing to work with the next administration.
Congress returns from recess on Tuesday. The House will be in session until Sept. 30, and the Senate will adjourn Oct. 7. Congress is scheduled to return Nov. 14, after the presidential election.
The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) spent August educating policymakers on the importance of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA), which would support local and state efforts to prevent juvenile delinquency and strengthen the protections for youth who enter the criminal justice system.
JJDPA was established in 1974 and most recently reauthorized in 2002. The 2015 reauthorization bill was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and has 19 bipartisan cosponsors.
CFSY Advocacy Director James Dold said he hopes to see the bill pass Congress while Obama is still in office. “Our issue has been one of the rare issues, I think, where there has been widespread bipartisan support,” Dold said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have supported our bill. Because our issue is nonpolitical in that sense, we will try to see how the election shakes out and how the next administration is going to take shape. Once that happens post-November, we will begin a plan of action to reach out to the next administration and doing everything we can to make sure our country continues to progress in the right direction.”
The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) has been circulating a letter to other organizations in support of JJDPA. The bill has been on hold since February because Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has objected to a provision that would phase out judges’ ability to send juveniles to lockup for status offenses.
“I don’t think anyone really takes a vacation anymore,” CFYJ CEO Marcy Mistrett said. “We’ve done what we can to get Mr. Cotton to lift his hold, and it doesn’t seem like it is going to be fruitful. So, we are hoping this letter will provide some incentive to prioritize that when they come back.”
Mistrett said her organization is preparing to educate the new members of Congress and the next administration on the importance of the JJDPA, along with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, in the likelihood that it will not make it through during the coming session.
The National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) supports the reauthorization of the JJDPA as a member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. NJDC is especially excited about a portion of JJDPA that includes grants for training judges and other personnel in state and local courts to improve the lives of children in the juvenile court system.
The NJDC has also spent the summer promoting the Gault at 50 campaign, which seeks to intensify focus on insufficient defense counsel for juveniles. The campaign takes place almost 50 years after the Supreme Court decided In re Gault. That decision was intended to ensure all children accused of a crime in juvenile court receive a lawyer and other due process rights, such as being notified of the charges, being able to cross-examine witnesses and not being forced to make a statement against themselves in court.
“Mainly, what we’ve been doing over the summer has really been educating members of Congress and staff on the crisis in juvenile defense, the lack of funding and the fact that even though there is a right to counsel for children in delinquency court, many children throughout the country go without lawyers,” said Christina Gilbert, the NJDC staff attorney and policy counsel. “In many places, even when they do get lawyers, the quality of representation isn’t strong.”
Though the work on Capitol Hill has decreased during the recess, NJDC has increased public outreach, Gilbert said.
“In general, this is not a slow time at all,” she said. “The Hill outreach has slowed down, but that just means everything else has picked up.”
Although the presidential election has made for long workweeks and fewer vacation days over the recess, Dold of CFSY said he hopes the work they have put in will make a difference for children in the court system.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice that is made,” Dold said. “When we see the impact of these laws on the lives of [those] who are impacted, I think at the end of the day that’s what makes it all worth it. It gives us hope and I feel honored and privileged to do the work that we do, to give back and make the country better.”