Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa

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Grassley, Whitehouse Speak Out Against Blocking of Bill to Protect Children in Juvenile Justice System

Dec 01, 2016

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) requested that the Senate pass bipartisan legislation to protect and improve the lives of young people involved with our juvenile and criminal justice systems.  Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) objected to the request, blocking passage of the bill.  Grassley and Whitehouse released the following statements regarding the action on the Senate floor.

“Ever since Sen. Whitehouse and I began working on our juvenile justice reform package two years ago, we’ve worked to include input from our colleagues to get a meaningful bill to the President’s desk.  Our goal has always been to improve a federal grant program to ensure youth who encounter the juvenile justice system are treated safely, fairly, and in a way that encourages greater respect for the law, while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said Grassley. 

“Sen. Cotton has suggested that judges should retain the authority to jail youth for violating court orders even when the underlying offense would never land an adult behind bars – offenses like truancy or underage tobacco use.  We’ve gone back and forth with Sen. Cotton to address his concerns, and today’s effort to pass a House bill is another example of our efforts.  Unfortunately, Sen. Cotton objected to moving forward with this latest compromise, which would grant states even greater flexibility than what was in our original bill.  We will continue working to find a path forward to provide a long overdue policy update to the juvenile justice program and ensure that it is effectively serving our most vulnerable youth as intended,” Grassley said.

“Young people in our juvenile justice system should have the chance to turn their lives around and contribute to society,” said Whitehouse.  “This bill would help them do that by ramping up delinquency prevention efforts, addressing offenders’ mental health and substance abuse issues, and providing safer conditions for those in custody.  It also calls on states receiving federal funds to end the practice of locking children up for offenses that aren’t considered criminal if committed by an adult, like skipping school.” 

“Since we began work on this legislation in 2014, it has won the support of large, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, and from national law enforcement groups, juvenile justice advocates, and juvenile and family court judges.  It has the backing of the Arkansas State Advisory Group, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and the Arkansas Division of Youth Services.  We understand Senator Cotton had concerns with aspects of the bill and we worked with him closely throughout the year to address them.  We have agreed to take up the version of this bill that passed the House, which was modified to address concerns like those voiced by Senator Cotton.  That is why I am deeply disappointed Senator Cotton has chosen to abandon compromise and stand in the way of this important bipartisan legislation to help some of our most vulnerable children,” Whitehouse said.

Grassley and Whitehouse introduced legislation in the Senate in 2015 to reauthorize and improve the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974, which provides grants that encourage states to meet core requirements for the treatment of juveniles in contact with the criminal justice system.  Their bill provides additional support and protections for youth, including addressing mental health and substance abuse issues and strengthening delinquency prevention efforts.  It would also guard against fraud and mismanagement of federal funds through enhanced oversight of JJDPA grant programs.  

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in July 2015.  The House passed similar legislation this September by a vote of 382-29.

Grassley and Whitehouse’s legislation is supported by more than 150 organizations.

Grassley's remarks on the Senate floor requesting unanimous consent to pass the bill are below: 

Prepared Floor Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
Unanimous Consent Request to Advance Juvenile Justice Reform
November 30, 2016

Mr. President, soon I will offer a unanimous consent request. It is in regard to a bill that would reform and reauthorize federal juvenile justice programs.  Known as the “Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016,” it passed the other chamber last month by a vote of 382-29.

This bipartisan House bill is modeled closely on one that I introduced over a year ago with Senator Whitehouse.  That legislation, titled the “Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act,” has 19 Senate cosponsors and cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which I chair, without a single dissenting vote last year.  The House companion before us today also won the unanimous approval of a committee in the other chamber, before passing the House with overwhelming support a few weeks ago.  The two bills are remarkably similar in many, or most, respects, including their objectives.

One such objective is to extend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for five more years. That federal statute was last reauthorized in 2002, and it’s long overdue for an update:  Congress still is funding juvenile justice programs that expired in 2007, or nearly a decade ago.  

I think my colleagues know the hard work of Senator Enzi, Chairman of the Budget Committee, a program that he has to identify the hundreds of billions of dollars that we're spending of taxpayers' money that has not been authorized by the authorizing committees. So getting a lot of bills that have expired reauthorized is in the spirit of what Senator Enzi is trying to promote among the committees we have in the United States Senate that don't do their work on a regular basis.

At the centerpiece of the 1974 Act is its core protections for youth.  Over 40 years ago, Congress committed to making federal grants available to States that observe these core protections, of which there are now four.

•    The first core protection discourages the detention of children and youth for extremely minor infractions, such as truancy, underage tobacco use, disobeying parents, or running away. No state would ever jail an adult for this same conduct, and research shows that nothing much positive comes out of locking up children for conduct that isn’t even criminal.  

•    The second core protection calls for juveniles to be kept out of adult facilities, except in certain rare instances. 

•    The third calls for juveniles to be separated from adults when they are held in adult facilities. 

•    The fourth calls for States to try to reduce disproportionate minority contact in their juvenile justice systems. 

Those goals are from 1974 and are still legitimate goals. Under our proposed legislation, as under current law, if a State commits to meeting these core protections for youth, it can expect to continue receiving federal grant money to support its juvenile justice activities.   

Our second objective for this legislation is to make reforms to current law so that taxpayer-supported juvenile justice programs will yield the best possible outcomes. To that end, our bill reflects the latest research on what works best with at-risk children and youth. 

We added provisions to promote the rehabilitation of runaways who are at high risk of being trafficked.  We included language to discourage the shackling of pregnant juveniles during childbirth. After learning that a handful of States receiving federal grant funds are locking up children as young as 8 or 9 for minor infractions like truancy, we called for the phase-out of “valid court orders” permitting that practice.  

Last, but not least, we responded to concerns voiced by whistleblowers, by adding accountability measures to protect the taxpayers and promote more oversight of juvenile justice programs.  And these accountability measures are something that I've been working on both as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of that committee for a long period of time, not just on the juvenile justice program but on a lot of other programs where the taxpayers' money is being wasted by having different standards in some programs versus the others. And particularly when the bureaucracy at the Justice Department is not policing what states do and they let the states get away with it. We have all kinds of GAO reports or inspector general reports that come back to us that say this money is not following intent that was intended by Congress. And I think all senators assume a responsibility to make sure the taxpayers' money will go as far as it can. And so we worked some of those accountability issues into every bill that I can get out of the Justice Department that affects these programs.

Groups such as the Campaign for Youth Justice, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Boys Town, Fight Crime Invest in Kids, among many others, endorsed the legislation and contributed input. We also consulted the National Criminal Justice Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and a coalition of roughly two dozen anti-human trafficking groups, which endorsed the legislation as well.   

The House bill before us today includes many or most of the same provisions that Senator Whitehouse and I championed, and it enjoys the support of virtually all of the same 100-plus organizations that endorsed the version we sponsored in this chamber.  But the House made a few key changes to preserve more flexibility for States.  For example:

•    States that object to phasing out the detention of status offenders over a period of three years can invoke a one-year “hardship” exception.  That hardship exception is renewable every year, for an indefinite period, at the State’s option.  

•    The House-passed measure also includes a modified version of legislation that Senators Inhofe, Casey, and Vitter backed in this chamber.  That language would encourage the rehabilitation of youth who are at risk of becoming involved in gangs or the criminal justice system.

This House bill shouldn’t be controversial, which is why we’re requesting unanimous consent to have the Senate pass it today.  Again, I remind my colleagues that the other chamber passed it by an overwhelming vote in September, after the Education Committee, under Chairman John Kline’s leadership, reported the measure without a single dissenting vote.  

I also want to thank our cosponsors, including the current Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy, as well as the future Ranking Member, Senator Feinstein, for their support of this legislation.  Unfortunately, when we sought to bring up the Senate version by unanimous consent back in February, a single Senator objected, preventing its passage.  He has objected to language that would require States to embrace one of the 42-year-old core protections.  

Mr. President, before this Congress comes to a close, we have a great opportunity to pass an important piece of legislation to help some of the most vulnerable children and youth in the United States. But it’s not just these at-risk children who would benefit:  due to the reforms we’ve included in this bill, the legislation would benefit the taxpayers too.   

For these reasons, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of S. 1169.  


Chairman Grassley’s Remarks for the Record Following Sen. Cotton’s Objection

Mr. President, I am disappointed that the junior Senator from Arkansas continues to impose the only remaining roadblock to passage of this critical piece of legislation.  

Back in February, Senator Cotton pledged to work with Senator Whitehouse and me to resolve our sole point of disagreement on this bill.  I know that others, including Senator Cornyn, have made repeated overtures to Senator Cotton as well.  However, we are still at an impasse.

Our disagreement stems from a 42-year-old provision of the federal juvenile justice law that encourages States to phase out the detention of children who commit infractions, such as running away from home, skipping school, disobeying parents, or underage tobacco use.  This statutory provision—which has been on the books since 1974—extends a “carrot,” in the form of Federal grant funds, to any state that commits to deinstitutionalizing  juveniles who commit extremely minor infractions, also known as “status offenses.”

The reason for this core protection is simple: Locking up children for conduct, like running away or underage tobacco use, which could never, ever result in an adult’s being jailed defies logic and common sense. 

For example, when you lock up a child for truancy, you ensure that the child will miss even more school and fall even further behind in schoolwork.  At the same time, you’ve done little, if anything, to resolve the underlying issue that led to the truancy.  Similarly, very little is accomplished by locking up a repeat runaway who’s being abused at home.   

I urge the Senator to consider what happens when a judge sends an especially young child, who has committed the most minor infraction, known as a “status offense,” in juvenile detention with more hardened or violent offenders.  That young child, who has committed no crime whatsoever, is particularly vulnerable to abuse by older juveniles in detention.    

Consider, too, that some of these children come from broken homes or have mental health issues.  They are among the most vulnerable members of our communities and need our help. They don’t need to be dumped in a detention facility where they will be exposed to violent criminals who have committed much more serious crimes than skipping school.  

In the decades since 1974, Congress made good on its pledge to appropriate resources for every State that committed to fulfill the core requirements under the federal juvenile justice statute. And about half of the States, recognizing that the detention of status offenders is mostly ineffective and tremendously costly, have made good on their commitment under this grant program.  These states have phased out the practice of locking up status offenders entirely.  

In another couple dozen States, judges invoke the “valid court order” exception sparingly.  The exception is just that, an exception to be invoked only rarely.  Status offenders end up in detention only occasionally in these states.   

But in a tiny handful of States, and Arkansas appears to be one, some judges send status offenders to detention much more regularly.  It’s been reported that some of the children in detention for status offenses in Arkansas are as young as 8 or 9.  Juvenile advocates have charged that some judges are sending status offenders to detention as a general practice, which has led to calls for reform.     

The Senator notes that the Arkansas legislature has chosen to retain the option of jailing children for status offenses as a last resort option.  This bill does not change that. This bill is not a mandate that would override that state’s law.  It merely lays out conditions for receiving Federal grant money. Arkansas is still free to not comply with the conditions set forth in this legislation.

I want to remind my colleague that over 100 nonprofit groups, numerous judges, and about 1000 law enforcement officers support this legislation. They agree that detaining child status offenders is not good public policy, based on significant research that points to the same conclusion.  

I would also remind my colleague that judges have multiple other options to hold these juveniles accountable. The other options include, for example, suspending the juvenile’s driver’s license, imposing fines, or ordering the juvenile into counseling, with or without parents.  Counseling and other community-based alternatives not only cost much less, but are more effective than locking up children alongside violent criminals, research suggests.
The junior Senator from Arkansas pledged to work this singular issue with myself and Senator Whitehouse, over nine months ago. I have worked in good faith to address his concerns, but he has been unwilling to compromise. Still, this one issue is holding up a bill that is vital to help the children in our country.

Once again, I would like to point out that this legislation does not affect state law in the Senator’s home state of Arkansas.  We are merely imposing conditions to receiving federal grant money.  If this bill passes, which I hope will happen today, Arkansas is free to continue to invoke the valid court exception. So I ask that the Senator lift his hold on this critical piece of legislation.

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