Sen. Cotton Stands In Way Of 99 U.S. Senators On Juvenile Justice Bill

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) in February.
Credit C-SPAN

In a rare bi-partisan moment the U.S. Senate - or all but one member - was prepared to take a step on Thursday to change part of the nation's juvenile justice system. President Obama's State of the Union address in January harped on criminal justice as an area where common ground might be found.

The congressional news site Roll Call has an account of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas ruffling the feathers of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Senator Cotton stepped in on the floor to block a unanimous consent motion to to re-authorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act which expired in 2007.

Cotton's Republican colleague Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley of Iowa tried to corral Cotton's support on the Senate floor, according to Roll Call.

Grassley spent several minutes huddled with an aide and Cotton toward the back of the chamber in an animated conversation. Finally, they broke up, with Cotton headed over to his desk to page through a notebook. Grassley went over to Whitehouse on the other side of the aisle, spoke for a few moments, and said to him, “No, we’re going to go ahead.”

It didn't work. That didn't sit well with Sen. Grassley's Democratic partner in the legislative effort, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Cotton objected to one provision of the legislation.

“This was a bill that came through Judiciary without a single voice of dissent,” Whitehouse began. “Indeed, it has such broad enthusiasm and support in the Judiciary Committee that we decided that we would simply hotline the bill because there seemed to be no objection to it. Hotline means you ask unanimous consent and warn people you’re going to ask unanimous consent, and anybody who wants to object has a chance to come here and do so.

“It is my understanding that there is one senator of the 100 of us who wishes to do so. And so, here we are going through that exercise,” he added, gesturing toward Cotton. Whitehouse then proceeded to read a long list of Arkansas police chiefs and others from Cotton’s state who supported the measure.

Cotton was undeterred. After Whitehouse finished and Grassley asked for consent to pass the bill, Cotton objected, explaining his concerns. 

“I agree that the bill improves the way we handle juvenile offenders. … I hope to see it passed into law. However, I would like to take more time to discuss one specific provision of the bill relating to juvenile status offenders and secure confinement,” Cotton said. He said he thinks judges should have the option to place juvenile offenders in detention centers if they violate an order to take part in rehabilitation or other treatments.

University of Arkansas law school associate professor D'lorah Hughes wrote a short history of the policy as its morphed through several re-authorizations since 1974. The most recent in 2002.

The advocacy group Coalition For Juvenile Justice describes four tenants of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO)

A status offender is a juvenile charged with or adjudicated for conduct that would not, under the law of the jurisdiction in which the offense was committed, be a crime if committed by an adult. The most common examples of status offenses are chronic or persistent truancy, running away, violating curfew laws, or possessing alcohol or tobacco. This JJDPA requirement focuses on alternatives to placing juveniles into detention facilities for status offenses.

Adult Jail and Lock-up Removal

This requirement focuses on removing juveniles from adult jails and detention facilities.

Sight and Sound Separation

This requirement ensures that accused and adjudicated delinquents, status offenders, and non-offending juveniles are not detained or confined in any institution where they may have contact with adult inmates.

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC)

This requirement focuses on reducing the disproportionate number of juvenile members of minority groups who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.