OP-ED: Attorney General’s Legacy Needs Shoring Up

Liz RyanLet’s take a moment to review the accomplishments and legacy on youth justice issues of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. After six years, he announced his intentions last week to step down.

The ones that come to mind first are civil rights investigations in juvenile justice, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations and the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.

Holder is perhaps best recognized in the youth justice category for his reinvigoration of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.

An example of this is the administration of justice case in Shelby County, Tenn. This investigation, begun shortly after Holder was confirmed, found children didn’t have adequate due process protection before being transferred to adult criminal court.

The DOJ investigation also found racial disparities in the treatment of African-American children. An African-American child is twice as likely as a white child to be recommended for transfer to adult court, it found.

Of the 390 transfers to adult court in 2010 in Tennessee, about half were from Shelby County, and all but two of the total children transferred were African-American. DOJ officials are currently working with Shelby County officials to address the issues in the investigation.

Another accomplishment is the issuance of the long-awaited regulations to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2012.

Under these regulations, the Justice Department issued a new policy on youth in adult jails and prisons. The regulations state, “As a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles.”

The regulations include a new federal standard to implement the policy, the Youthful Inmate Standard, which bans housing young people with the general adult population, prohibits contact between youth and adults in common areas, and ensures youth are constantly supervised by staff. Limits on the use of isolation are required. States are in the process of implementing the PREA regulations.

Most notable among the initiatives launched under Holder’s tenure — the Access to Justice initiative, the Supportive School Discipline Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention — where he personally devoted his time is the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.

Through extensive public hearings, the task force heard from youth who were directly affected and their families about the violence children are exposed to in the justice system. The task force issued comprehensive recommendations, including a chapter on juvenile justice.

According to its report, “We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.” This recommendation impacts an estimated 250,000 youth under 18 who are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system and the nearly 100,000 youth who are cycled through adult jails and prisons each year.

While many of these Holder-led efforts were lauded by the juvenile justice field, the hoped-for outcomes are still far from certain.

For example, the groundbreaking Shelby County case is still underway, and it is uncertain that the reforms will stick once DOJ leaves the county. This test case is crucial in Shelby County and throughout the state, for policy reforms could be enacted statewide. This case is also being watched closely around the country. The possibility of more cases like this in other jurisdictions could provide another crucial lever for policy reforms nationwide.

Holder needs to ensure followthrough on this case and see that its results are maximized for nationwide impact.

Another major accomplishment, the PREA regulations, is far from being a done deal.

States are in the first year of PREA implementation. PREA, a major opportunity to remove youth from adult jails and prisons, has accelerated these reforms in Illinois and Massachusetts.

However, Holder has been criticized for his limited enforcement and oversight. He has allowed states to provide written assurances in lieu of actual audits to ensure state compliance, and hasn’t held accountable states that are flouting the law.

Further, Holder stood silent while the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted on an amendment to gut PREA enforcement, at the urging of state associations such as the National Governors’ Association and the National Criminal Justice Association.

Holder needs to shore up the oversight and enforcement of PREA and ensure a smooth handoff to the next attorney general. A botched handoff could tank the implementation of this important opportunity to remove kids from adult jails and prisons.

And finally, findings from the report of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence remain largely unenacted and possibly abandoned.

The report was released on Dec. 12, 2012, at a national press event where Holder stated publicly that he wanted to implement all the recommendations in the report.

Attending this event in person so I could witness the report’s unveiling, I was really excited to hear Holder’s commitment because of the recommendations on juvenile justice, especially on halting the transfer of youth to adult criminal court.

That excitement has now been replaced with extreme frustration and disappointment. We’ve heard little about implementation except a few rumblings about a public awareness campaign, which may or may not have anything to do with the juvenile justice recommendations.

The Task Force’s co-chair, Robert Listenbee, has become an Obama appointee as Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention. He is now in a position to lead the juvenile justice recommendations in the report.

With 843 days left in the Obama administration, Holder needs to shore up these key youth justice initiatives as he prepares to hand off the baton. Let’s hope the new attorney general stays on track to close out this administration with a strong finish.

Our kids are depending on it.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ.