Federal juvenile justice reforms moved closer to becoming law on Tuesday as the Education and Workforce committee moved bipartisan legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives by a unanimous voice vote.
Freshman Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and Ranking Member Bobby Scott, D-Va. introduced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, late last month. The bill updates a 1974 law that authorizes many of the programs overseen by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Department of Justice (DOJ). The law was last reauthorized in 2002.
In addition to changes that would bar states from some draconian detention practices, the new legislation requires government to prioritize evidenced-based interventions and to collect better data on the juvenile justice system. There are also provisions in the bill aimed at ensuring that educational disruptions are minimized for the more than one million minors within the system.
After the committee’s meeting, Lewis, a former talk-show radio host whose district includes the southern parts of the Twin Cities and outlying counties, spoke with InsideSources about what could become one of his first legislative accomplishments.
A big part of what made the proposal attractive to the congressman was additional support for career and technical education programs. Lewis said he has seen how young people get funneled into traditional humanities-oriented courses of study that might not necessarily be right for them. Those students can be prone to losing interest in school and sometimes end up getting into trouble, he said.
Part of the legislation’s goal is to reach out to more of those troubled students and “teach these kids a skill that really sets the light bulb off.”
“All of the sudden, you get them in an auto-mechanics class in high school and something clicks” he said.
A push to reauthorize federal support for career and technical education is also expected during the 115th Congress. A reform to that law, the Perkins Act, is likely to secure similar bipartisan support as the nation’s labor market faces a large imbalance of available jobs to technically skilled applicants. According to federal labor statistics, there are 5.6 million unfilled jobs nationally, many of which only require workers to secure a vocational certification, which is usually cheaper than a four-year degree.
Lewis, who took the seat previously held by retired Republican Education Committee chairman John Kline, said he was also attracted to the push for juvenile justice reform for oversight reasons. The Justice Department’s programs in the field have been funded to the tune of a few hundred of million dollars every year without updated regulatory direction from Congress.
“It was going to get appropriated again, so at least now we have some accountability, some oversight, and the DOJ has to report back on what’s working and what’s not,” he said.
On the other side of the aisle, the education committee’s top Democrat has been pushing to overhaul the federal role in juvenile justice for years. Backlash against law and order crackdowns from the 1990’s have led to widespread calls to restoring the justice system’s emphasis on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, for younger offenders.
In a statement, Scott said: “Today’s bipartisan Committee work brings us one step closer to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.”
By reducing youth incarceration rates—which disproportionately impact minority populations—Scott predicts the reforms will save money in the long run. According to a fact sheet circulated by committee Democrats, the bill also includes guidance aimed at getting law enforcement to reduce racially uneven rates of arrests and imprisonment.
Similar juvenile justice legislation passed the House of Representatives last year, but was held up in the Senate because Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. objected to the repeal of a rule that allows minors to be held for disobeying certain court orders. The differences between the House and Senate versions were not ironed out in time for passage before the start of the new Congress. Despite the procedural hiccup, the bill, which enjoys widespread support in both chambers, is expected to pass into law in the coming weeks.
The Education and Workforce Committee also sent the Improving Support for Missing and Exploited Children Act to the full House on Tuesday during the same markup session. That bill passed through committee by a unanimous voice vote as well.