Shortly after I was elected to the bench in 1996, I realized that bringing a child before the court to yell at them for missing school did little to help either the child, or their families. Publicly embarrassing our children, and even placing them behind bars, was not what was needed to change their behavior or achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring they get an education.

Humiliating our children – either through words or through court orders - I realized, was not going to fix the problem. The young people who stood before me had already been yelled at and experienced other trauma in their lives. In fact, according to a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) nearly 92 percent of all children involved with the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma, and 1 in 10 suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Embarrassing and incarcerating our youth for behaviors like skipping school causes further trauma, but does not serve their underlying needs or help to meaningfully improve educational outcomes.


Yet a majority of states across the country continue to incarcerate youth for status offense behaviors. Status offenses are things like truancy, coming home after a municipal curfew, and running away from home. Nationally, 116,200 status offense cases were petitioned to juvenile courts in 2011.  Of these, 8,800 cases resulted in detention according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Many states, including my home state of Kentucky, are taking steps to reduce these numbers. In 2010, more than 1,000 status offense cases in Kentucky resulted in incarceration. We were locking up more of our children than nearly any other state for these behaviors, and spending millions of dollars to do so. In 2014, however, the Kentucky Legislature, with the help of the Pew Charitable Trust, enacted legislation that is expected to help reduce the number of kids who are brought before the court status offense behaviors, while also saving the state nearly $24 million over the next 5 years. 

A bill introduced in the 113th Congress would also remedy this problem. In December 2014, Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Dems sue Archives to try to force release of Kavanaugh documents Dems call on Senate to postpone Kavanaugh vote Dems play waiting game with Collins and Murkowski MORE (D-R.I.) and Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyWife of 'Glow' director writes 'Stop Kavanaugh' on her arm for Emmy Awards Grassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt Murkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify MORE (R-Iowa) introduced S. 2999, a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

The JJDPA was first enacted in 1974 as a way to provide our children with core protections. The law, among other things, prohibits the incarceration of young people who are charged with status offenses. It provides an exception that permits youth who commit status offenses to be placed behind bars if their behavior violates a valid court order, such as a judge’s previous statement that a child must attend classes.

This exception, known as the valid court order (VCO) exception, has come under fire because of the many harmful effects it has on our young people. S. 2999 would have required states that receive federal funding through the JJDPA to phase out the use of the VCO exception over the course of three years. 

S. 2999 would strengthen the other protections included in the JJDPA as well, including separating youth from adult inmates and requiring communities to address racial and ethnic disparities within their systems. Whitehouse and Grassley’s proposal also included crucial funding to help train members of the judiciary and enable communities to respond to children in a trauma-informed way.

Overall, federal funds for juvenile justice have decreased nationally by nearly 50 percent since the JJDPA was last reauthorized. In Grassley’s home state of Iowa, federal allocations for juvenile formula and block grant programs, meanwhile, have dropped by 68 percent since 2010 alone. 

By reauthorizing the JJDPA, Congress has the chance to increase protections for our children and ensure that communities have the resources they need to continue to address our young people’s needs. The time is now to reintroduce and reauthorize a JJDPA that does right by our youth.

Byer served as a circuit court judge in the Family Division from 1996 to 2015. She was named Louisville Bar Association Judge of the Year in 2002,