More than half of U.S. States allow kids to be locked up for so-called “status offenses,” actions like running away from home, skipping school, or staying out after curfew, all things that wouldn’t be crimes if the kid was an adult.
Last year, more than 8,000 American children were sent to jail for these non-crime “crimes.”
Never mind that, 40 years ago, the landmark Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) stipulated that if states elected to receive federal juvenile justice grants, they couldn’t criminalize kids for these petty acts.
But then in 1980, an exception to the no-lock-ups-for-status-offenses rule was added as an amendment, allowing judges to sweep kids into locked facilities if the judge issued a valid court order (VCO) telling the kid not to commit the act, and the kid did it—or committed another status offense—anyway.
California is one of the states that makes liberal use of the so-called VCO exception.
This week, however, California Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D. San Fernando Valley) has introduced a bill—H.R. 3782, the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act—that could completely do away with the VCO exception.
“The irony is so immense, that we are making the worst possible choice we can, by putting kids in jail for making bad choices,” said Cárdenas. “Kids make mistakes as kids. They do things that are stupid, or misguided, but which should not be considered crimes for which they can go to jail. An American child should not have their life ruined by getting a criminal record and serving jail time for skipping school, or running away from an abusive household. We have to fix this, and we have to do it now.”
Cárdenas, a former Los Angeles city council member, has been a long time advocate of juvenile justice reform who also introduced another important kid-oriented reform bill this past June, namely the Protecting Youth from Solitary Confinement Act, which, if enacted, would prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal juvenile facilities.
“These are commonsense, straight-forward pieces of legislation that should not be controversial,” said Cárdenas. “We should not be putting kids in jail for skipping school and we should not be putting kids in solitary confinement, potentially ruining any chance they have at a normal life. Our children are the future of this nation. Juvenile justice reform means protecting and growing their potential, not condemning them to a life destroyed by their own government.”
Youth advocacy organizations such as the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, agree.
“While judges in many states are effectively and proactively addressing the needs of these youth without resorting to detention,” wrote the NJJDPC, “too many young kids are still finding their way into the juvenile justice system unnecessarily.”
Last year a conservative think tank out of Texas, The Texas Public Policy Foundation, put out an excellent report showing that shoving status offenders into the justice system was not effective and often did long-lasting damage.
So, yeah. Go, Congressman Tony!
H.R. 3782 was cosponsored by Reps. Cohen, Cummings, Ellison, Grijalva, Gutierrez, Jackson Lee, Moore, Rangel, Richmond, Scott (VA) and Vargas.