Grassley Lists Juvenile Justice As a Top Priority

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U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lists juvenile justice among his top legislative priorities, heartening juvenile justice advocates.

Beth Levine, Grassley’s press secretary, told JJIE Tuesday that he considered juvenile justice one of several top priorities. “It’s an important issue, so hopefully the fact that the chairman is working on it reflects that,” Levine said.

She noted that Grassley, R-Iowa, plans to cosponsor with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a bill that would reauthorize the landmark 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) for the first time since it lapsed in 2007.

“And it’s something that both [Grassley] and Senator Whitehouse are working on in a bipartisan manner and it’s important,” Levine said.

She said Grassley would also seek to include in the bill stronger accountability in grant-making for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, but declined to elaborate.

The JJDPA, the main federal juvenile justice law, is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, but has not been since 2002. At that time, few substantive changes were made, and it has not undergone major amendment in nearly two decades.

Levine said a bipartisan reauthorization bill introduced by Grassley and Whitehouse in December would be a “starting point” for new legislation in the 114th Congress, which convened this month.

Juvenile justice advocates say the bipartisan support reflects growing agreement among lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle that the current juvenile justice system is broken. Both Republican and Democratic legislators have called mass incarceration, particularly of nonviolent youths, costly and ineffective and say imprisoning such youths risks turning them into hardened criminals and increases recidivism.

Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of the nonprofit, Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, said it’s particularly significant that Grassley called juvenile justice one of his top priorities.

“The fact that he listed that as one of his top priorities is big,” she said. “And I would say that the fact that the JJDPA was introduced as a bipartisan bill by Senators Whitehouse and Grassley really reflects a lot of what we can hope to see this year.”

Liz Ryan, a longtime juvenile justice advocate based in Washington who is starting the Youth First! Initiative, agreed.

She said advocates had hoped Grassley would make juvenile justice a priority and pointed out that as committee chairman he has the power to decide what’s on the committee’s agenda.

Christopher L. Scott, an Open Society Foundations policy analyst whose specialties include criminal, civil and racial justice reform, said that with the bipartisan spirit on juvenile justice issues, “there are unique opportunities to work across the aisle.”

He pointed to bipartisan work in the 113th Congress on JJDPA reauthorization and the REDEEM Act. Among other things, the act would provide a process for sealing or expunging records relating to juvenile offenses, encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and limit use of solitary confinement of juveniles.

Now, Scott said: “With the changing of the guard as far as the GOP ... taking over the majority in the Senate, I think there are unique opportunities to work across the aisle, to work bipartisanly on juvenile justice issues.”

Increasingly, he said, Republicans understand reform is “beneficial for everyone. So for them, it’s about reducing costs, using cost savings to reinvest those dollars, but also reducing recidivism rates. ... The other piece really is, I think, the GOP sees this as an opportunity to work with Democrats to have really significant and substantive change.”

The JJDPA is the main federal juvenile justice law.

The bill Grassley and Whitehouse had cosponsored in December would have brought key changes to the law, including:

  • Phasing out “valid court order” exceptions that allow judges to incarcerate youths over repeated “status offenses” like truancy, possession of alcohol and running away from home.
  • Placing significant restrictions on putting juveniles in adult jails.
  • Requiring states to devise detailed plans to reduce disproportionate racial and ethnic contact with the juvenile justice system. (The current JJDPA merely requires states to track the number of cases of “disproportionate minority contact.”)

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