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December 14, 2017

Bipartisan juvenile justice reform bill has one problem in Congress: Tom Cotton



In a year in which politics has prevented passage of much significant in Congress, a potential huge victory is possible for the Obama administration — improvement in juvenile justice.

Both the House and Senate have demonstrated near total support for legislation that would withhold federal money from states that put juveniles in adult jails, including those charged as adults and awaiting trial. The legislation also would ban states from locking up juveniles for status offenses, things that aren’t crimes. These include truancy or breaking curfew.

Enter the problem: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. The House has passed a bill and a Senate bill is out of committee with near unanimous support in the chamber.

But it still faces an obstacle in Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has singlehandedly blocked the measure from being put to a quick voice vote. Cotton’s home state, Arkansas, locks up minors for running away and other status offenses at a disproportionately high rate, Mother Jones reported this week.

A spokeswoman said Cotton is concerned the proposed law would erode the power of the bench. “It is prudent to allow states to determine if their judges — often in consultation with the parents and attorneys involved — should have the discretion to order secure confinement as a last-resort option,” Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt said.

Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead proponents of the bill on the Senate side, have been trying for months to reach a compromise with Cotton. If their effort fails, it would fall to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up precious floor time — in a season devoted to reaching a spending deal and funding the fight against the Zika virus — with a debate and vote on the legislation.

Cotton comprise? That is wishful thinking. Alone he’s held up confirmation of judges to the federal court of claims, to name just one of several single-handed Cotton vetoes of valuable legislation. Kids in jail? No biggie for Tough Tom.

The bill is already a compromise. The federal funding states would lose if they don’t go along is small, if it materializes at all. It doesn’t include an end to solitary confinement for juveniles, as some had hoped. But it does provide for some important data collection. And it would end shackling of pregnant prisoners. If only they could get it past Tom Cotton. Perhaps somebody could get him to read this in Mother Jones on treatment of non-criminal juveniles.


In a year in which politics has prevented passage of much significant in Congress, a potential huge victory is possible for the Obama administration — improvement in juvenile justice.

Both the House and Senate have demonstrated near total support for legislation that would withhold federal money from states that put juveniles in adult jails, including those charged as adults and awaiting trial. The legislation also would ban states from locking up juveniles for status offenses, things that aren’t crimes. These include truancy or breaking curfew.

Enter the problem: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. The House has passed a bill and a Senate bill is out of committee with near unanimous support in the chamber.

But it still faces an obstacle in Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has singlehandedly blocked the measure from being put to a quick voice vote. Cotton’s home state, Arkansas, locks up minors for running away and other status offenses at a disproportionately high rate, Mother Jones reported this week.

A spokeswoman said Cotton is concerned the proposed law would erode the power of the bench. “It is prudent to allow states to determine if their judges — often in consultation with the parents and attorneys involved — should have the discretion to order secure confinement as a last-resort option,” Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt said.

Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead proponents of the bill on the Senate side, have been trying for months to reach a compromise with Cotton. If their effort fails, it would fall to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up precious floor time — in a season devoted to reaching a spending deal and funding the fight against the Zika virus — with a debate and vote on the legislation.

Cotton comprise? That is wishful thinking. Alone he’s held up confirmation of judges to the federal court of claims, to name just one of several single-handed Cotton vetoes of valuable legislation. Kids in jail? No biggie for Tough Tom.

The bill is already a compromise. The federal funding states would lose if they don’t go along is small, if it materializes at all. It doesn’t include an end to solitary confinement for juveniles, as some had hoped. But it does provide for some important data collection. And it would end shackling of pregnant prisoners. If only they could get it past Tom Cotton. Perhaps somebody could get him to read this in Mother Jones on treatment of non-criminal juveniles.

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