Hatch Quarterbacks Sneak Play For Youth Crime Bill

Bill Alexander
October 1, 1998

The punishment-laden juvenile crime bill known as S.10, which youth advocates have been trying to beat down for months, has suddenly zipped through the Senate without debate thanks to fancy maneuvers by Republicans on the House and Senate judiciary committees.

The legislation that would send more kids into adult jails and send younger kids for trial in federal courts has long been stalled. But last month its key elements suddenly open toward passage through a lesson in legislative maneuvering led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that left foes dumbfounded.

“It’s despicable,” said Mark Soler of the Washington-based Youth Law Center, “that they would use this back-door way to sneak legislation through while the country is diverted by the Clinton business.”

But many Republicans see it as a laudable move to pass much-needed legislation to get tough on juvenile criminals.

Here’s how it worked:

In mid-September, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. e, Juvenile Crime Control Act sponsored by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fl.). At that time the bill was combined with H.R. 818, the reauthorizing legislation for the 24-year-old Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.).

Over in the Senate, those two bills were tacked on as an amendment to S.2073, a bill renewing appropriations for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The package was then fast-tracked for a House-Senate conference committee. There, H.R. 3 will be joined with its Senate companion bill, S.10, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act.

The goal is to bring an up-or-down vote in both houses before the 105th Congress adjourns. With this scenario, the previously stalled S.10 will simply have some components that were offensive to child advocates (and Democratic lawmakers) grafted on to H.R. 3, which is now tucked into missing and exploited children legislation.

“Rather than bring this debate to the Senate floor, America’s juvenile justice system is now in the hands of Sen. Orrin Hatch, and that is a scary thing,” said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Hatch, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with McCollum, Riggs, and Youth Violence Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), are said to have devised this novel way of skirting debate. Uncharacteristically mum, the Republicans will only admit to their desire for the swift passage of a crime bill.

Democrats, cut out of the process, were late to react. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) did swivel heads with a filibuster threat. But informed sources doubt the Hatch razzle-dazzle play can be stopped short of the White House goal line. Congressional sources suspect that a compliant President Clinton will not try a veto.

Raising Hackles

Early this year, Chief Justice William Rehnquist objected to the S.10 and H.R.2 “federalizing” of youth crime laws by providing fiscal incentives for states to prosecute juveniles in federal courts. The Senate bill, for example, authorizes $850 million in block grants to be divvied up each year for three years by states that change their laws so that kids as young as 13 who are charged with violent criminal acts (including selling drugs) are automatically tried in adult courts.

The bill also would:

  • Allow children to be detained in adult jails;
  • Allow runaway, truants and other status offenders to be locked up for up to 14 days before trial (including up to 24 hours in an adult jail); and
  • Mandate expulsion from school for up to six months for possession of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.

Provisions in the House-approved H.R.3 would:

  • Let federal prosecutors decide whether to prosecute juveniles as adults if they are accused of serious drug crimes or violent crimes;
  • Transfer children 14 years and older accused of serious federal offenses to adult courts;
  • Allow public access to juvenile criminal records to schools and employers;
  • Open juvenile court proceedings to the public; and
  • Authorize $1.5 billion over three years for juvenile corrections, sanctions, prosecutions, and probation.

While H.R.3 provided no funds for prevention programs, S.10 makes $50 million available. Miriam Rollin of the National Network for Youth called this “inadequate.” In addition, she said there is no guarantee a state will spend its allotted funds on prevention programs because the money was not protected by a set-a-side. “It will most likely go into law enforcement,” she said.

But Rollin saved her biggest fury for the legislation’s “horrible” treatment of status offenders. A status offense is behavior that is unlawful for children, even though the same behavior is legal for an adult. “Why are we locking them up?” she shrieked. “Most are running from abusive situations at home, and then locked up and treated as if they were criminals.”

Gaveling with Grossman

Such objections contrast sharply with what was heard earlier last month, however, when Cincinnati Judge David Grossman testified before Sessions’ Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Agreeing with Session that authorities should “intervene” when a juvenile “first shows signs of disorderly or unlawful behavior,” Grossman went on to denigrate the removal of status offenses (such as runaways, truants and curfew violators) from court jurisdiction to community-based youth agencies.

The deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO), whereby the youths were referred to community services rather than to institutional lock-ups, gained national acceptance beginning in the 1970s. Grossman told Sessions it was a “movement” whose time has long gone. “All to often,” he said, “it left the intended young beneficiaries of its advocacy adrift on the streets, fallen between the cracks.” He and Sessions agreed that status offenses should be returned to the courts’ jurisdiction.

“Trash talk,” responded David Steinhart, director of the Commonwealth Juvenile Justice Program in Marin County, Calif., when he heard of Grossman’s remarks. “This lock-em-up mentality is all political noise. Why contaminate a youngster’s life with an early criminal contact when most stop this activity after the first time?”

‘Giant Step Backward’

Lee Trevithick, clinical director for Seattle’s Youthcare, which serves status offenders, said Congress should be dealing with the question of why kids are homeless. “They are generally the victims of intolerable home situations that include sexual and physical abuse. Tossing them into an adult detention facility is a giant step backward,” said Trevithick. “Court is not the place to solve family problems.”

Steinhart, in an article written for the Packard Foundations’ “The Future of Children” series, credits the impetus for the DSO movement to two events: a series of 1960s decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court re-drafting status offenders laws to meet due process standards, and the 1974 passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act with its strong federal policy (and funds to back it up) against placing no-criminal minors in secure facilities. By 1988, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the 50 participating states had reduced national status offenders detention levels by 95 percent.

Steinhart, in calling the pending S.10/H.R.3 hybrid juvenile crime bill “a pathway to failure,” includes it as one of the factors now eroding the federal and state commitment to DSO.

The others, he said, are a widespread failure to develop adequate services for youth and families; the tragic deaths of runaway youths; rising fear of juvenile crime, and new statehouse majorities promoting agendas of youth discipline and accountability.

Alexander, Bill. "Hatch Quarterbacks Sneak Play For Youth Crime Bill." Youth
, October 1998, p. 46.

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