Leahy Statement On Passage Of The Juvenile Justice Reform Act And Short-Term Extension Of Runaway And Homeless Youth Programs

I have long supported Juvenile Justice programs, and I have long supported Runaway and Homeless Youth programs.  During the 20 years I served as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and in my current role as the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I have championed bipartisan reauthorizations and supported funding for these programs, overcoming the House of Representatives, which zeroes out Juvenile Justice programs in its appropriations bills year after year.  These programs make a real and lasting difference in the lives of the children and teens they serve.  The two programs are funded separately in separate appropriations subcommittees, and their reauthorizations have traditionally moved separately. 

I am pleased the Senate today passed the long-debated Juvenile Justice Reform Act.  This legislation makes needed, comprehensive, and long overdue updates to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.  It mandates research to study, identify and address disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system, and separates young offenders from adult jails and prisons.  It also reauthorizes funding for key juvenile justice programs.  Funding for these vital programs is key to preventing youth from coming in contact with the juvenile justice system, and ensuring youth have the opportunity to get the help they need to avoid repeating the cycle.  Reducing recidivism is not just the moral thing to do; it saves future state and federal dollars.

The Grassley substitute amendment, which passed the Senate this evening, reauthorizes the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act at a lower level than I support, and a lower level than is supported by the providers and advocates in the field who know firsthand what the actual needs are to help these youths.  It also fails to make important programmatic improvements that Senator Collins and I have been working on for years.  These improvements include provisions to prevent and respond to human trafficking – to which runaway and homeless youth are particularly vulnerable – by requiring staff training to identify when a child entering their program has been a victim.  Training program staff to identify young victims of trafficking helps ensure staff refers children and teenagers to appropriate services and takes steps to prevent their further traumatization.  These young people have experienced major, unimaginable trauma, and we need to make sure they receive the right counseling and treatment to help them recover.  Our reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act also includes important nondiscrimination language to ensure all youth who try to access programs can do so regardless of their faith, race, or sexual orientation.  Unfortunately these improvements will have to wait.

While we have much to celebrate with the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, I am disappointed that some members on the other side of the aisle demanded the inclusion of an extension of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, and lowering its authorization without the improvements contained in my legislation with Senator Collins.  The House passed and the Democratic hotline cleared H.R.6964, a clean version of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act with no reference to the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.  Unfortunately, Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee refused to run the hotline on the Republican side.  This in effect held hostage these important Juvenile Justice reforms to leverage authorization cuts to a completely unrelated program. 

These two pieces of legislation have not moved in the same reauthorization bill in 30 years.  They are funded through different appropriations bills, administered by difference departments, and their authorizations serve different purposes.  Senator Collins and I have worked for years on a comprehensive bipartisan reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and expressed our concern with including a lower reauthorization with no improvements as part of Juvenile Justice Reform.  Unfortunately, members on the other side were willing to hold up passage of Juvenile Justice Reform for yet another Congress, over an unrelated program. 

In the interest of ensuring programmatic improvements and reauthorization of Juvenile Justice programs, Senator Collins and I agreed to a two year reauthorization of Runaway and Homeless Youth programs at an eight percent reduction from its last authorized levels.  Although I am disappointed that Runaway and Homeless Youth programs are reauthorized even in the short term without needed programmatic improvements, I look forward to working with members of the House and Senate to pass a bipartisan, comprehensive Runaway and Homeless Youth reauthorization in the 116th Congress.  

It is my understanding that the House Committee on Education and Workforce will prioritize a comprehensive reauthorization of Runaway and Homeless Youth next Congress, and I hope the Senate Judiciary Committee will do the same.  If so, we have a chance to make a real difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our country. It’s time we seize it. 

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