Child advocates are worried Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has forgotten about the children. Some told HuffPost that he appears to be more focused on passing a criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, before the end of the year than a juvenile justice bill he has championed for the past four years.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the major piece of federal legislation that protects incarcerated youths and fights racial inequity in the system, was passed in 1974 but has not been reauthorized for 16 years. As a result, its funding levels have declined, and in the past few years, Nebraska and Connecticut stopped participating in the act because its requirements are too costly to implement.
Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been trying to reauthorize the JJDPA since 2015, and it’s finally a Senate vote away from being passed. If it doesn’t, the process will start at square one in 2019, which advocates worry could have dire consequences for incarcerated youths.
But instead of pushing it past the finish line before Congress lets out for the year and Grassley steps down as committee chairman, advocates fear he is prioritizing the First Step Act over cementing his reputation as a champion for children’s rights.
“This is a legacy cornerstone piece [of legislation] for him,” Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice, said of the JJDPA. “The fact that he’s putting all his eggs in [the criminal justice] basket just means we have to be noisy and not let him forget about the kids.”
The JJDPA reauthorization bill is currently stalled because of a disagreement between two senators over whether it should include the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is in favor of reauthorizing the acts together, while Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and homeless-youth advocates say combining them would reduce Runaway and Homeless Youth Act funding by 23 percent and fail to include important updates to the bill that would protect trafficked youths.
In a statement to HuffPost, a representative for Grassley said, “We now have a bill that is very close to being done this year. ... But for the objections of one Democratic senator, this bill could be brought up and passed unanimously. Chairman Grassley will continue to work with his colleagues and advocates to get this bill across the finish line before year’s end.”
But advocates say that as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley should be using his position of authority to facilitate discussions between senators and make sure the dispute is resolved, especially given his reputation as a children’s rights advocate who has helped pass key legislation on adoption and child welfare.
“Sen. Grassley has the power of persuasion,” said Sarah Bryer, the president and executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “[He] has the ability to talk to his peers in the Senate and get them to agree to stand down on their issues and stand up for young people.” She added that the bill is bipartisan and noncontroversial and should not be a “heavy lift” for Grassley to pass through the Senate.
“He’s the one in charge of judiciary right now who can make it a priority,” said Mistrett. “[He] can make it a strong legacy of supporting children that he’s championed for four years.”
She said the reauthorization of the JJDPA is particularly crucial this year. There’s no guarantee that Grassley’s replacement as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be as supportive of juvenile justice, and furthermore, the Trump administration’s tough-on-crime agenda does not bode well for incarcerated youths.
Caren Harp, the head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, has questioned rehabilitative justice, saying the system focuses too much on “avoiding arrests at all costs.” She has downplayed the issue of racial inequity in the system and has scaled back the amount of data that states must collect on racial and ethnic disparities.
Among other things, the reauthorized JJDPA would require states to gather more data on minorities in the system and forbid children charged as adults to be held in adult jails, according to Mistrett.
While child advocates are glad Grassley is pushing the First Step Act, which focuses on prison reform, shorter sentences and rehabilitation, they don’t think it should come at the cost of advocating for young people.
Rachel Marshall, the federal policy counsel for Campaign for Youth Justice, said it’s “disappointing, frustrating and shocking” to see Grassley talk about the First Step Act in the media without so much as mentioning the JJDPA.
“At this point, he is spending all of his political clout on the First Step Act,” said Marshall. “And while criminal justice reform is extraordinarily important, it’s not an either/or, in my view.”
Advocates say young people often get overlooked in discussions about criminal justice, despite the fact that reducing juvenile offenses is one of the most successful ways to curb adult crimes. But they didn’t expect Grassley, of all people, to turn his attention away from youths.
“I know historically he has been a fierce champion of [the JJDPA] and has been a real advocate for young people,” said Bryer. “And so why is he not taking the lead and going full court press on this bill right now? [It] does not make sense.”