August 1, 2017

Whitehouse Juvenile Justice Reform Bill Clears Senate

Washington, DC – Today, the Senate approved bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), making important improvements to the way we treat young people in our criminal justice system.  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) authored the bill with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA). 

“This bill will help kids in the system to turn things around, return home, and stay out of trouble,” said Whitehouse. “It helps to stop practices that do more harm than good, like confining young people with adults or putting them in solitary confinement.  It helps kids stay on track at school.  If the real reason they’re in the system is a mental health condition or a battle with addiction, this bill helps to tackle those problems – not make them worse.  For years, Rhode Islanders have told me what works and what doesn’t in our juvenile justice system, and I’m proud to put their contributions to work in this bill.  Thank you to Chairman Grassley for joining me to see this through the Senate.”

“Youngsters who encounter the juvenile justice system should be treated safely, fairly and in a manner that encourages greater respect for the law. The federal juvenile justice program helps states achieve these fundamental goals, but the program hasn’t been updated in more than a decade. Today’s action by the Senate to pass this bill is a significant step toward ensuring that the program is functioning as intended. The bill includes important new accountability requirements that safeguard taxpayer dollars and prevent states from being rewarded when failing to provide the minimum standard of protections for minors. I’m grateful for the work of Senator Whitehouse and all those who came together in this effort,” Grassley said.

The JJDPA passed in 1974 to help ensure the safety of at-risk youth who enter the criminal justice system, and assist states with their juvenile justice programs and activities.  Congress has not updated the law since its last reauthorization in 2002. 

In 2014, Whitehouse held a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Pawtucket, RI, about ways to improve the nation’s juvenile justice system.  The hearing included testimony from Robert L. Listenbee, Jr., Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as from representatives of the Rhode Island Family Court, and Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a nonprofit dedicated to improving health, safety, and opportunities for Rhode Island children.

“The reauthorization of the JJDPA, which hasn’t been renewed since 2002, will strengthen minimum standards and provide important funding for state and local juvenile justice systems as well as promote prevention strategies to prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.  “I am grateful to Senator Whitehouse for his lifelong dedication to making sure that youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system have the chance to become productive members of society.”

The Grassley-Whitehouse bill:

  • Revises and extends authorization for the key juvenile justice programs originally authorized under the JJDPA.  The law puts in place core requirements, or protections, for youth in contact with the criminal justice system.  These include ensuring that children are not detained in adult prisons.
  • Provides for increased accountability and oversight of Justice Department grant making practices based.
  • Adds a requirement that the Justice Department offer periodic training to states on best practices and protocols to achieve compliance with the law’s core requirements, as well as a requirement that states designate one individual who shall certify the state’s compliance with the core requirements. 
  • Enables students to continue their education while detained.
  • Strengthens provisions to screen, refer, and provide treatment to children with mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues.
  • Eliminates the use of shackles on pregnant girls in detention.  

In addition, the bill addresses whistleblowers’ concerns that many states fall short of the statutory conditions for federal juvenile justice grants.  After Senator Grassley chaired an April 2015 hearing on U.S. Department of Justice grant making practices, the Department has acknowledged shortcomings in its grant-making policy.  This oversight hearing prompted Grassley and Whitehouse to craft the bill’s new accountability requirements to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used appropriately, and youth are being adequately served.

According to a study by the Council for State Governments, young people who go through community-based treatment programs – like those supported by Whitehouse and Grassley’s legislation – are re-arrested at a lower rate than youth with similar criminal histories and backgrounds who are detained in state facilities.  A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that youth who are confined are more likely to drop out of high school and be incarcerated as adults than youth offenders who are not imprisoned.

The bill now heads to a congressional conference committee to hammer out the differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation.


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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921