Congress may move to ban detention of noncriminal youth

Juveniles sit at Remann Hall in April.
Juveniles sit at Remann Hall in April. Staff photographer

Although Washington law lets judges jail juveniles for noncriminal offenses, the state’s law can exist because Congress allows it.

Some juvenile justice advocates are hoping Congress changes its mind soon.

Efforts are underway to phase out the part of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that allows states to detain youth for civil offenses, such as running away from home or skipping school.

The act generally bans incarcerating youth for those noncriminal violations, which are known as status offenses since they are illegal only due to the perpetrators’ status as minors. But the law makes an exception for youth status offenders who violate an order from a judge, such as to attend school or go home at night.

Separate bills in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives would get rid of that exception after three years, effectively eliminating judges’ ability to jail juveniles for noncriminal offenses.

Washington would potentially be the state affected most by the proposed changes, given that judges here appear to use the court order exception more than in any other state. In 2011, Washington accounted for more than one-third of the instances in which children were jailed for status offenses nationwide, according data reported to the federal government.

The Senate version of the legislation is probably the most likely to advance in the Republican-controlled Congress, given that it has an array of both Republican and Democratic supporters — including co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the Senate proposal, states could ask for an extra year before they’d have to comply with the new law, if they can make a case that revamping their juvenile justice systems in three years would cause undue hardship.

Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C., said members of her organization are hopeful that Grassley’s committee will consider the Senate legislation before senators’ next recess in August.

Advocates for juvenile justice reform have been trying to get Congress to update the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for several years, Smoot said. The last reauthorization of the law was approved in 2002 and expired in 2007.