Q&A with Shay Bilchik, Former Head of the Federal Office on Juvenile Justice

Shay Bilchik

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently sat down with Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to ask how juvenile justice issues have fared under the Obama administration. Bilchik served as the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton. He left that position to work as president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

JJIE: How does Congress’s understanding of juvenile justice issues compare with how it was in the 1990s? Is there less understanding now, or is there the same understanding and just fewer people care?

Bilchik: There’s probably less understanding and less caring. Less understanding because you only understand if you stay current with the research and you’re listening to people talk about what we know what works, what some of the issues are that the kids are facing that might be leading to delinquency.

And they care less because I think there’s more things to distract them, but also because we don’t have this big juvenile crime problem. In the ‘90s, all of the improvements that we saw were in a sense a byproduct of a concern about juvenile crime out of control. And while a lot of bad things happened from that, there also was a tremendous investment in a variety of things that supported the juvenile justice community. They weren’t all punitive. A lot of the laws that were passed were punitive, but the investment that was made funded a lot of different kinds of programs: prevention programs, early intervention programs, as well as potentially residential programs.

So with crime rates not being as high, I think people are less focused on it: ‘Well, juvenile crime’s OK. We’ve heard they’re going down, they’re going down.’ Well, yeah, they’re going down, but we’d like them to be a lot lower. We’d like more services for kids so they can do better in life.

So I think it’s both: that they don’t know as much, because they’re not paying as close attention. We as a field know more, but those decision-makers may not know as much, and they care a little bit less.

JJIE: Do you think a 16-year-old black boy who comes into contact with the juvenile justice system is better or worse off now than he would have been in the 1990s?

Bilchik: I don’t think that problem has been solved at all, in terms of really being solved, but I actually think a young black man, a 16- or 17-year-old black boy, is better off today than he was 10 to 15 years ago. Independent of whatever has been going on with police – and there’s been a lot of police training around disparate treatment – that young person coming to the front door of the juvenile justice system is much more likely to receive an assessment that will be objective, that will identify their level of risk, and that will give them a better chance of not as easily penetrating into the juvenile justice system and more deeply into that system than they would have otherwise.

If you’re looking for a major trend in juvenile justice, it is the enhanced use of assessment of risk and need. That’s everywhere. It isn’t being done well everywhere, it’s not in every jurisdiction in every state but that trend is occurring across the country.

JJIE: Congress passed and the president just signed a law removing the requirement that the U.S. Senate must confirm 170 federal positions, including that of the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Now that post will be filled by presidential appointment only. What do you think of the change?

Bilchik: When I learned that the law had moved forward and had been signed by the president, I was disappointed.

I understand how hard it is to get political appointees through the confirmation process and I don’t want to speak to all 170 or so that were just changed, but I think in the limited place that juvenile justice has at the federal level, for that office not to remain a Senate-confirmed position hurts the stature of the office and, I believe, how it ultimately will be able to function and operate, and the attention it gets from Congress.

JJIE: We’re less than three months from an election, and given that it really could go either way, do you foresee the scenario for juvenile justice or for children and youth issues being different under Obama or Romney? What are the situations we’re facing and are they really that different?

Bilchik: It’s a great question. My answer is rather nuanced. Would Obama in a second term, and Eric Holder, if he’s the attorney general, prioritize juvenile justice to a level they did not in their first term?

I like to think that the values they bring are ones that are consistent with valuing that office (OJJDP) and the leadership role that that office is supposed to play, and the importance of juvenile justice issues more broadly. That the success or significance of juvenile justice would not be defined by a couple of individual initiatives, but really how the entire (federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) Act is supported. So that’s the first question, and my partial answer is: I think their values are aligned with the office and the purposes of the Act, and so I would have hope that all things being equal, we would see a better second term than we did a first term.

But I also can be somewhat of an apologist for the administration and for Holder, in saying that I can’t imagine a first term that’s ever been as distracting, outside of maybe the country being in war, like a world war, than what they faced, coming into a set of issues that the Department of Justice had to deal with and an economy that was just devastating. So I think there’s a reason why perhaps we did not see as much during the first term, where if the economy stabilized, began to regrow, we would see those values more in evidence.

And then the third part of the nuanced answer is this balance of the executive branch and Congress. In some ways, the office did best when there was a split between the parties, between Congress and the presidency. Either the president was Republican, and a Democratic Senate or House would restore the office’s budget when the executive branch was trying to zero it out. Or in the Clinton years, Year 3 on, when there was Republican oversight in the House, the Republicans in the spirit of compromise worked effectively with the administration in growing OJJDP. That office was grown from about $89 million to over $600 million, with a split between the parties.

My biggest fear would be if the Republicans take over both the executive branch and all of Congress. That’s the worst-case scenario because I believe the office would be in danger of being subject to deficit reduction. We would lose the office in the name of saving money. And the answer would be that in the name of federalism, ‘This is really a state and local issue, not a federal issue, so let them handle it and with their own dollars.’ And that would be a tremendous loss.

I want to be clear: the only reason we grew like we did in the ‘90s was because of a strong Republican presence in the House, in my oversight committee, with Hal Rogers (then-U.S. Rep. U.S. Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee). If Hal Rogers, who was a very conservative Republican, had not understood the issues of juvenile justice and supported that kind of expansion to better serve his constituents in his state of Kentucky, we wouldn’t have grown the way we did. This is not about party politics per se. Any individual in any party can get these issues and get them right.

Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

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Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Kaukab Jhumra Smith has worked in journalism since 1995, except for the two years she spent as a middle-school teacher in Pakistan. She holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has reported on politics, technology, business and culture for American, Pakistani and Vietnamese media.