Bill Commentary

Problematic Loophole in Protections for Juvenile Status Offenders

Juvenile Justice

For decades, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has provided protections for kids in the juvenile justice system. Prior to the enactment of the JJDPA it was common practice for kids to be incarcerated for status offenses such as running away from home, skipping school, or violating city curfew. Status offenses are non-criminal acts that are treated as criminal only because the wrongdoer is a minor. More than 7,000 kids are incarcerated each year for status offenses.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2017 extends the authorization of the original 1974 statute to ensure funding for states that adhere to four key protections within the juvenile justice system: deinstitutionalization of status offenders, sight and sound separation, adult jail and lockup removal, and disproportionate minority contact. First Focus has endorsed this reauthorization.

The first provision, deinstitutionalization of status offenders, refers to protecting youth from incarceration for offenses that would not be a crime if he/she were an adult. This provision seeks to ensure that juveniles who have not committed a crime are not held with those who have.

In 1980, the JJDPA was amended to include a violation of a valid court order as an exception to the rule for status offenders. This exception is a loophole for courts to continue the practice of incarceration for status offenses. For example, if a court orders a kid to not skip school, consequently skipping school is no longer a status offense, and that kid can be locked up for skipping school in violation of this court order.

New research has shown that there is an incredible need for increased screening for kids who have experienced abuse, neglect, trauma and/or are victims of trafficking. According to a recent report by the Children’s Action Corps, the growing awareness of the effect of trauma has led to the need for interventions that take into account the relevance of trauma in the lives of youth with behavior problems and potential involvement in the juvenile justice system. Finding alternatives to detention for these kids will prevent unnecessary involvement with the justice system while addressing their underlying needs.

Some some states and territories do not use the valid court order as an exception to the rule. Unfortunately, according to data from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 16 states and territories reported more than 100 uses of the valid court order during a 12-month period. Notably, Arkansas reported 747 uses, Kentucky reported 1,048 uses, and Washington reported 2,705 uses in one year.

The Juvenile Justice Delinquency Reauthorization Act was reintroduced in the Senate this year, and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act was introduced in the House. Both bills have passed their respective chambers and are waiting for a conference committee to reconcile the differences. Only the House bill allows for a phase-out the valid court order. While we are supportive of the reauthorization of the JJDPA, we are hopeful that the final passage will exclude the provision for the use of valid court orders as an exception for status offenders.