On the Friday before Christmas, President Donald Trump signed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, a major juvenile justice bill that bans states from incarcerating children in adult jails even if they are charged in adult court.
The legislation also requires states that receive federal funding to collect data on racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and to devise plans for addressing disparate treatment. It bans shackling of pregnant girls and provides funding for tutoring, mental health, and drug and alcohol programs for juveniles.
The hundred-page bill was unanimously approved in the Senate and passed the House shortly thereafter with bipartisan support. Advocates hailed its passage as a critical victory after years of failed reauthorization attempts.
The original Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act passed in 1974, setting core standards that states must follow in order to qualify for federal grants, including protecting children from being incarcerated for “status offenses” like truancy and curfew violations; removing children from adult jails and prisons; ensuring sight and sound separation in the exception of any children incarcerated in adult facilities; and addressing racial disparities in juvenile justice.
Since the law expired in 2007, racial disparities in the juvenile system have worsened significantly, and as the Marshall Project reported this fall, the Trump administration has reduced federal data-gathering and monitoring of states’ efforts to address racially disparate treatment.
The new law provides significantly more congressional oversight for the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the agency tasked with data collection and oversight on racial disparities.
Importantly, it eliminates an exception in earlier versions of the law that allowed juveniles charged as adults to be held in adult jails pretrial. (A “rural exception” allows jurisdictions with no juvenile detention facility to hold juveniles in an adult jail for several hours while awaiting transportation to another facility, and the bill leaves open the possibility that a court could, after a hearing and in writing, order a juvenile to be housed pretrial in an adult facility.) UCLA researchers recently reported that more than 32,000 youth are incarcerated in adult facilities each year.
“Kids in our juvenile justice system need safety, fairness and treatment that encourages respect for the law,” said Senator Charles Grassley, one of the two co-sponsors of the Senate bill. “[O]ur bill includes important new accountability measures that protect taxpayer dollars and prevent states from being rewarded when failing to provide the minimum standard of protections for minors.”