New Bill Aims to Keep Youth Out of Detention for Minor Offenses

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — This week, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and U.S. Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D-CA-29) introduced the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act. The bill seeks to prevent children from being detained in facilities for minor offenses known as “status offenses.” These are actions that are not considered crimes if committed by adults, such as truancy, breaking curfew, or running away from home.

Currently, the law allows for the use of the “valid court order” (VCO) exception. This exception permits judges to detain youths for status offenses if they violate a court order. The new legislation aims to phase out and eventually eliminate this exception, advocating for responses that better support young people instead of incarcerating them.

“Far too many children are locked up every year for minor offenses like skipping school and running away from home,” said Senator Casey. “Putting our kids behind bars for these actions does nothing but introduce them to the very thing we want to steer them away from: the criminal justice system.” Casey emphasized that the legislation is about changing the direction of young lives, creating safer communities, and offering better support to youth during difficult times.

Congressman Cárdenas shared his personal observations from growing up in Pacoima, where he witnessed the detrimental effects of overincarceration on young people. “That’s why I am proud to partner with Senator Casey to introduce the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act,” Cárdenas said. He highlighted that these cases disproportionately impact youth of color, who deserve equal opportunities to thrive. “We must always strive to better support our youth by uplifting them – and not treat them like criminals,” he added.

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The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act was amended in 1980 to include the VCO exception, allowing judges to issue detention orders for status offenses. This amendment has led to the institutionalization of thousands of children annually. It has disproportionately affected young people of color, who are more likely to be involved in status offense cases relative to their population size.

Senator Casey and Congressman Cárdenas have long advocated for closing the VCO loophole. In the 2018 juvenile justice reauthorization, they secured provisions that limited the time a status offender could be held in a secure facility to seven days. The new bill seeks to close this loophole for good and reverse the negative impacts it has had.

Additionally, the bill addresses systemic issues highlighted by the “Kids for Cash” scandal in Pennsylvania. This scandal involved judges receiving financial kickbacks for sentencing minors to detention centers, often for minor offenses. The proposed legislation aims to prevent such abuses by removing the VCO exception entirely.

The Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act has garnered support from various organizations, including Act4JJ, Association for Children’s Residential & Community Services (ACRC), Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and the Juvenile Law Center.

Transformative Bill: Shaping a Brighter Future for Young Offenders

The importance of this bill lies in its potential to transform how society deals with young offenders. By eliminating the VCO exception, the bill would reduce the number of youths entering the criminal justice system for minor infractions. This approach prioritizes supportive interventions over punitive measures, which can have lasting positive effects on young people’s lives.

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Detaining children for status offenses often leads to deeper involvement in the criminal justice system. This can disrupt their education, damage their psychological well-being, and limit their future opportunities. The new legislation advocates for alternative responses that focus on addressing the underlying issues that lead to status offenses, such as family dynamics, mental health, and socio-economic factors.

In summary, the introduction of the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act represents a significant step toward reforming juvenile justice. By keeping children out of detention for minor offenses, the bill aims to offer them a chance for a better future while promoting safer and more supportive communities.

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