At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, federal employees and child advocates argued that states have been allowed to take juvenile-justice grant money while violating laws against jailing kids for minor infractions.
“The true victims in all of this are the children who come into contact with inadequate juvenile-justice systems,” said Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee.
Among those testifying at the hearing was University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin, who was featured in a 2014 Center for Public Integrity investigation into children who were shackled and jailed in Knox County, Tenn. , after being summoned to court for truancy.
As in most states, truancy is not a crime in Tennessee, Rivkin said. Missing school is a “status offense,” an infraction that only a minor can commit, like running away. Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974 status offenders cannot be jailed—unless, based on a loophole, the children are first clearly afforded the appointment of legal counsel and given ample opportunity to comply with instructions given to them by a court.
Rivkin told the Senate panel that he and other attorneys have represented truants with mental-health and learning problems who were jailed before the lawyers met with the minors or began representing them.
“One of our clients threatened suicide, following her release from the detention facility, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital by her parents,” Rivkin said, describing the story of a 15-year-old Knox County girl whose experience was featured in the Center report. Rivkin submitted the story to the committee as part of his testimony.
“In the juvenile jail,” Rivkin told the committee, “our clients were shackled, indiscriminately drug tested, asked to strip, given orange jail jump-suits, and placed in a facility that held serious juvenile offenders. They were not screened for mental-health problems.”