Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, during the markup of H.R. 5053, the Justice for Juveniles Act:
"H.R. 5053, the 'Justice for Juveniles Act,' is a bipartisan bill that would eliminate the administrative exhaustion requirement for incarcerated youth before they may file a lawsuit challenging the conditions of their incarceration. This modest, but important bill, would correct a manifest wrong currently present in federal law, established by the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
"The Justice for Juveniles Act would exempt youth from having to comply with the unfair administrative burden of having to 'exhaust' their remedies before being authorized to access the courts.
"The PLRA’s administrative exhaustion requirement, as applied to youth, is inconsistent with today’s scientific understanding of the cognitive development of young people. Requiring a sophisticated understanding of how to navigate bureaucratic and technical procedures, this requirement is too a high burden for young people in custody to meet successfully.
"The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a young person’s immaturity and lack of knowledge might pose unique obstacles to navigating legal proceedings. In a 2011 case, the Supreme Court explained that failing to take age into account 'and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults—would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards' to which they are entitled.
"The overwhelming number of experts recognize that differences in maturity lead, in the correctional context, to underreporting of assault and a general failure by youth to recognize the dangerousness of particular circumstances, which prevents young people from being able to effectively petition for changes in their prison conditions.
"In addition, the internal complaint system in correctional settings is rife with problems, which are exacerbated because grievance procedures tend to rely on written communication. Juveniles in the justice system often have educational deficits, lacking literacy skills to write a complaint or adequately explain the nature of their concern. It is therefore particularly difficult for them to pursue complaints and satisfy strict exhaustion requirements
"Courts have, sadly, been exacting in their requirements that the exhaustion requirements be followed, no matter how sympathetic the situation. A recent study of Prison Reform Litigation Act cases in federal court found that the law is often invoked to throw out juveniles’ cases on technicalities—even in suits involving sexual assault or youth who are illiterate, deaf, or mentally ill.
"Despite acknowledging that there are cognitive differences between youth and adults, courts have not carved out, on an equitable basis, an exception to the exhaustion requirement. It is, therefore, up to Congress to address this serious problem.
"Exempting youth from the exhaustion requirement will not flood our courts with cases and it may very well shed much needed light on unconstitutional practices that have been left to fester for decades.
"I thank Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, joined by Representatives Armstrong, Reschenthaler, and several other of our colleagues, for championing this issue and for introducing this bill. I encourage my colleagues to join me in supporting it today."