NRA Task Force Wants to Arm School Staff

guns_school-3WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Rifle Association’s task force for improving school safety released a 225-page report Tuesday with a list of recommendations, including the modification of  state laws to allow trained staff to carry weapons on campus. Other recommendations included addressing students’ mental health needs and boosting physical security through architectural changes and elements like perimeter fencing around schools.

The National School Shield task force also recommended enhanced training programs for school resource officers, who are sworn law enforcement officials on campus duty, and training armed school staff to respond rapidly in case of an emergency.

Such training for armed school personnel would last 40 to 60 hours and cost about $800 to $1,000 per person, said Asa Hutchinson, the task force director and a former Congressman from Arkansas, who presented the report.

The recommendations were aimed at schools, local and federal governments, and the NRA itself, Hutchinson said. His group reached its conclusions after assessing a number of diverse schools and interviewing school officials from around the country over three months, he said.

The group’s findings dealt only with ways to make schools more secure and not with wider issues such as background checks for gun buyers or federal limits on the capacity of bullet clips, he emphasized.

Hutchinson was guarded by an unusually strong security presence while presenting the report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

Hulking guards with matching lapel pins and earpieces stood around the lobby of the Press Club and checked journalists’ backpacks before allowing them to enter the room where Hutchinson was to speak. More guards stood by the exits at the front and the back of the room.

After the conference, guards outside the room tried to stop journalists from standing in certain areas of the Press Club lobby while waiting for Hutchinson to exit the club. When a guard was asked if he was with the NRA or with a security firm hired by the NRA, he looked away without answering the question.

Hutchinson stressed during his presentation that his task force operated independently from the NRA. An advance press listing, however, gave the following description for the event: “The National Rifle Association (NRA) holds a discussion on the findings and recommendations of the National School Shield Program.” The email address for media registration was also an NRA address.

The task force’s conclusions closely follow the recommendations made by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in the weeks following the Connecticut school shootings, when he recommended arming teachers in schools as a way to deter future school shootings.

“We need time to digest the full report,” the NRA said in an online response to the task force’s findings.

The task force’s recommendations also come at a time when momentum for federal legislative action on gun safety has slowed, and the NRA appears to be winning its battle against stronger gun control. Public support for stricter gun laws appears to have stagnated or even slipped below the level it was at three months ago, soon after the shooting deaths of 20 elementary school children in Connecticut, according to the Pew Research Center.

Hutchinson’s presentation came on the heels of an address on gun control by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), held an hour earlier at the Press Club. In fact, Cummings was still answering questions from a full room at one end of the Press Club while other reporters were filing into the packed NRA-sponsored event down the hall.

Cummings, who introduced gun-control legislation with support from more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors last month, expressed concern that endless debates would prevent Congress from passing any actual laws. He emphasized he was willing to work with the NRA to reach a legislative compromise that addressed the concerns of all sides.

Prominent child advocates, however, voiced strong opposition to the task force’s proposals.

“The truth is there is no evidence that armed guards or police officers in schools make children safer. Columbine High School had an armed guard, and Virginia Tech had a full campus police force,” said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, in a written response to the NRA task force’s recommendations.

“It is long past time for us to protect child safety instead of guns. We must not allow the gun lobby to enrich gun manufacturers at the expense of our children’s education and safety, ” Edelman said.

Photo by shannonpatrick17, edited | Flickr

Michelle Obama to Speak on Youth Violence in Chicago

800px-Barack_MichelleWhen 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed at a Chicago playground just a few days after performing at President Obama’s inauguration in January, First Lady Michelle Obama flew to Chicago to attend Pendleton’s funeral. At President Obama’s State of the Union speech, Pendleton’s parents sat next to the first lady.

 Now, Michelle Obama is heading back to her hometown to join Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, in urging the city’s business and philanthropic communities to raise $50 million for community-based programs to help at-risk young people.

She will speak at an April 10 lunch meeting called “Working Together to Address Youth Violence in Chicago,” which will be attended by members of several civic organizations, including the Commercial Club, the Economic Club, the Executives’ Club, and World Business Chicago, the White House announced yesterday.

The meeting is the result of an initiative led by two CEOs, Tom Wilson of Allstate and Jim Reynolds of Loop Capital, according to Emanuel’s office.

Wilson and Reynolds will head a coalition of business and community leaders, researchers and criminal justice professionals to identify, support and expand proven programs, monitor their effectiveness and encourage community engagement through donations and volunteer work, Emanuel’s office said.

“Chicago's businesses are partnering with social service professionals and community groups to make our neighborhoods safer for innocent children,” said Wilson in a prepared statement. “The current level of violence has been decades in the making and is unacceptable.”

In his own statement, Reynolds said he had been born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and had witnessed how community violence hurt the ability of its children to thrive.

“We expect the business community to play an important and active role in answering the Mayor’s call to invest in programs that serve some of our most vulnerable children,” Reynolds said.

Photo by vargas2040 | Flickr

Listenbee Takes Over as Federal Head of Juvenile Justice

Defense attorney Robert Listenbee Jr., who led the juvenile defense unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia since 1997, took the oath of office today to become the first permanent administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in more than four years.

The OJJDP updated its website Monday morning to announce Listenbee’s first day of work, which comes seven weeks after President Barack Obama announced hisintent to nominate him to the post and more than four years since the president first took office.

J. Robert Flores, the last permanent administrator, resigned his position in 2008 under then-President George W. Bush. In January 2009, Bush appointed Jeff Slowikowski as acting administrator, a position he held for three years. In January 2012, Slowikowski was replaced by Melodee Hanes.

Listenbee becomes the first defense attorney to lead the federal office as well as the first African-American. He gave an interview to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange in February, describing his work on reforms within Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and the insights he brings to the national stage.

“There’s a very large juvenile justice community that is woven together fairly extensively, and that community is yearning for a clear direction at this point about where juvenile justice practice should be heading,” Listenbee told JJIE last month. “And certainly I’ll be working with the professionals at the OJJDP and colleagues in the field throughout the nation to make sure we give a clear direction to where we want to go.”

His first actions after taking the oath of office would be to get oriented and talk to his immediate supervisors, including Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, to make sure he understood the priorities of the attorney general and the president, Listenbee told JJIE at the time.

“They’re the ones who have appointed me, and I want to make sure that I maintain fidelity to their priorities as well,” Listenbee said. “I certainly have an awful lot that I think is important based on my many years in juvenile justice, and I certainly will be seeking to share that and agree on a set of priorities.”

Based on Listenbee’s previous work, his priorities appear likely to include an emphasis on reducing racial disproportionalities, improving children’s access to quality counsel, and improving youth and family engagement.

“You go to countless jurisdictions where you do not find children having lawyers to represent them at all kinds of proceedings, or children are represented through the dispositional stage but once they go into placement there are no lawyers to represent them,” Listenbee told JJIE at the time. “Many of them languish in placement for extended periods of time, often without just cause. And that’s of deep concern to me.”

Reactions from national and local child justice advocates to news of Listenbee’s nomination appeared overwhelmingly positive.

Listenbee’s biography is now on the OJJDP site.

Photo by DTKindler | Flickr

Grassroots Push Central to Juvenile Sentencing Reforms

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since last summer, state legislatures around the country have been scrambling to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting states from sentencing children to mandatory life terms in prison without the chance of parole.

Significant grassroots pressure remains necessary to ensure state legislators don’t try to create wiggle room around the court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, said youth justice advocates at a recent panel discussion organized by the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. Members of the panel argued that sentencing reforms should take into account the cognitive and developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

Among the legal complexities unleashed upon states by Miller v. Alabama last June are the questions of whether the ruling applies retroactively to sentences already handed down, and whether, regardless of mandates, life terms without parole or other long-term sentences that effectively ensure death in prison are ever acceptable for juveniles, panelists said.

Twenty-nine states currently have laws that directly contradict the Miller decision, said Daniel Gutman, a state strategist for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which lobbies for the abolishment of life sentences without parole for all juveniles.

“When we’re talking about legislative reform in response to the Miller decision, it’s a very difficult process and there’s lots of different statutes at work,” Gutman said.

Connecticut, Nebraska and Illinois are currently considering proposals to abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles, Gutman said. Wyoming has already abolished such a sentence, enacting in its place the possibility of terms ranging from 25 years to life.

“We have a problem with that, of course. But it is a promising sign that states are thinking about this in a way that’s going to eliminate life without parole,” Gutman said.

Multiple Supreme Court decisions over the last seven years have created “an incredible amount of change in a very short amount of time,” said panelist Alicia D’Addario, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative.

In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for minors. In the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida, the court declared it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. And in Miller v. Alabama last year, the court declared mandatory life without parole sentences unconstitutional for all juveniles.

“What we’ve seen is that there’s a lot of resistance to these decisions in child courts,” said D’Addario, who served as the petitioners’ co-counsel in Miller. Even after the Graham decision, which cleared a path to reduced sentences, “We had cases where we went back and the judges re-sentenced our clients to 130 years, or terms of 125 years without parole,” she said. “We even had some judges who completely denied relief and refused to re-sentence.”

That’s because over the last 20 years, as a result of punitive state laws enacted in response to public safety fears, judges have become “very comfortable” with giving children long sentences, D’Addario said.

That’s put the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions philosophically far ahead of many state judges’ practices and beliefs, and many are resisting the recent changes: for example, D’Addario said, there are Alabama judges who are still adjusting to not being able to sentence children to death.

As a result, fair-sentencing advocates have a tremendous amount of public education to do to create a climate where children receive sentences with an opportunity for release, she said.

When lobbying state legislatures for sentencing reform, advocates must emphasize the reasoning the U.S. Supreme Court used to reach its decisions on juvenile sentencing rather than the strict letter of the rulings, Gutman said.

“As advocates and as lawyers, it’s my opinion that we really have an obligation to talk about the Miller decision, the Roper decision, the Graham decision, beyond the factual finding that they came to,” Gutman said.

It’s critical to explain to lawmakers and the public that scientific research shows adolescent brains are still developing and that teenagers are less culpable than adults, he said. Otherwise, lawmakers tend to focus on “the next worse thing” that they can put on the books for juvenile offenders, such as eliminating mandatory sentences but keeping life without parole as an option.

“Sure, 60 to life is not mandatory life without parole, but it still violates every tenet of these decisions in terms of individualized sentencing and meaningful opportunities for parole, and kids being fundamentally different from adults,” Gutman said. “So that’s something we’re hoping to never see again.”

Grassroots pressure remains important as states debate how to proceed this legislative season, he said. “There’s going to be a lot of movement going forward in the next few months in terms of how states are going to address this,” Gutman said.

That means, he said, “a lot of work that we’ll need to do to push back against what we call ‘the next worse thing,’ which obviously we will not be advocating for, and (which we will be) trying to kill in legislatures.”

Shake-up Underway at Federal Office of Juvenile Justice

(L-R) Robert Listenbee, Joe Torre, Melodee Hanes

Major changes in leadership, structure and funding are underway at the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, changes that are likely to impact the way the office extends assistance to the field.

For starters, the office will soon get its first permanent chief in more than four years. Robert Listenbee Jr., a widely-praised juvenile defense attorney from Philadelphia and the Obama administration’s pick for office administrator, will probably start work by early next month, several nationally connected juvenile justice leaders said.

By the time Listenbee takes over from acting Administrator Melodee Hanes, the office will already be operating under a new streamlined vision and a major reorganization of its staff, programs and grants.

The restructuring, which has been under development for months and is happening now, includes the creation of new office divisions focusing on policy areas like youth development, community development and juvenile justice improvement, Hanes told members of a national advisory committee this week.

But these improvements come at a time of mandatory federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which kicked in last week as a result of Congressional gridlock over the federal deficit. About $107 million could be slashed this year from her office’s already lean budget as part of $1.6 billion in reductions to the U.S. Department of Justice, Hanes told the committee.

“It’s a big amount with big consequences,” she said.

Hanes assured committee members, who represent state advisory groups across the country, her office’s primary goal was to mitigate the impact of budget reductions on its workforce and on states and tribal areas. Sequestration only affects funding for fiscal year 2013 and does not affect existing grants or cooperative agreements awarded in fiscal year 2012 or before, Hanes said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Hanes said. “As of now, we don’t plan to terminate programs.”

Reductions in federal funding in recent years probably precipitated the office’s decision to restructure as a way to improve efficiency, juvenile justice professionals said.

“I would speculate that there were two major catalysts for this – a practical reality for continually reduced capacity to integrate and coordinate functions and reduce any duplication of effort, and to create a broader and more effective climate of teamwork,” said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, head of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a network of state advisory groups.

After all, financial pain is not new to the OJJDP. Federal funds for programs administered by the office declined by 41 percent to $277 million from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2012, Janet Chiancone, the associate administrator for budget and planning, told the federal advisory committee at its October 2012 meeting.

The office will publicly announce its reorganized structure once it has moved all staff into their new positions, migrated programs and grants into the new divisions, and ironed out any wrinkles, a process that should be complete by the middle of March, Hanes said.

“It’s still a work in progress and we find that almost every week we have to make a tweak to the reorganization chart,” Hanes told the committee.

Veteran juvenile justice professionals around the country expressed optimism at the changes, while emphasizing they did not have details on the actual plan.

Hanes’ participatory approach to the entire reorganization process, such as asking office staff and state advisory groups to offer input and advice, boded well for how the agency made decisions and how the new structure would reflect perspectives from the field, Robinson said.

Dean Williams, who advises his home state of Alaska and the federal government on juvenile justice issues, agreed. “I think it’s a real signal that they want to focus their efforts on areas that have been most important to the field,” he said.

Hornberger said she looked forward to seeing the final organizational plan. “I think the field is eager to see the results of the many forms of input and has some high expectations for this reorganization, particularly in terms of coordination, connection and responsiveness to the states,” she said.

George Timberlake, a retired judge who serves on the federal advisory committee on juvenile justice, and a frequent contributor to JJIE, expressed similar hopes.

“Everyone I have met on staff at OJJDP is highly professional and well-qualified, and because of that, I think there’s great promise that reorganization and permanent leadership is going to produce good results,” Timberlake said.

Number of Kids Behind Bars Reaches 35-Year Low

There were fewer kids behind bars in 2010 than there have been in 35 years, demonstrating what one foundation called a “sea change” in American attitudes toward juvenile justice, according to a trio of new reports out today based on U.S. Census data.

Although the United States still locks up young people at a far higher rate any other industrialized nation, that number has been steadily falling over the past decade and reached its lowest point in 35 years in 2010, the most recent year data is available, according to “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” a KIDS COUNT data snapshot released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Most of these changes have taken place idiosyncratically in individual states and counties, but collectively, in the aggregate, they represent an extraordinary trend that we haven’t seen in the U.S.,” said Bart Lubow, who directs the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program for high-risk youth and who has worked in criminal justice for nearly 40 years. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen it.”

More and more jurisdictions are taking on innovative approaches to reducing juvenile delinquency and relying less on punitive responses to juvenile crime, resulting in cost savings for the public and providing hope for better outcomes for youth, the Foundation’s report said.

The KIDS COUNT report came out in conjunction with a pair of reports by the Justice Policy Institute, which detailed youth incarceration declines in specific states and outlined the lessons learned from reforms in those states’ juvenile justice systems.

Reducing the confinement of young people is usually couched in terms of reducing government costs, but it’s probably just one factor in the shift that is taking place socially and politically across the country, Lubow said in an interview with the JJIE.

“I’m old enough and have been in the business long enough to have very little confidence at all that fiscal constraints in and of themselves change America’s appetite for incarceration,” Lubow said. “The history of recession over the course of my career has simply been that policy makers found creative ways to fund corrections.”

That national hunger for punitive measures appears to be waning. The District of Columbia and 44 states showed declines of an average of 37 percent in their incarcerated youth populations between 1997 and 2010, according to the Casey Foundation.

Five states -- Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota and Tennessee -- all reported declines of more than 50 percent in the number of young people incarcerated between 2001 and 2010, according to the Justice Policy Institute’s report “Common Ground: Lessons learned from five states that have dramatically reduced juvenile confinement.”

“These states have taken advantage of circumstances, both good and bad, to reshape their juvenile systems away from the over-use of confinement and towards recognition that young people are different from adults; the reasons that put them in contact with the justice system are different and the way we respond to their behavior should be different,” said Spike Bradford, a senior research associate at the Justice Policy Institute and the author of the report.

But the data in these reports lags dramatically behind the reality, even though it may be the best information available right now, Lubow pointed out. The number of young people incarcerated in the United States is likely even lower today than the 2010 data shows, he said.

For example, at least one of the six states shown by the Census data to have increased its confined youth population contacted the Casey Foundation to say their state’s data in the report did not look right and had actually decreased over the last 10 years, Lubow said. He didn’t know enough about the matter to comment on why the data may be inaccurate, he said.

Although incarceration rates declined across all ethnic and racial groups, the racial and ethnic disproportionalities in the incarcerated population remained. Young African Americans were five times more likely to be incarcerated than young people who were white, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

“The decreases are largely reflected across all racial and ethnic categories, but because we start with a system that has extreme disproportionality, an equal reduction across all ethnicities leads us to the same level of disproportionality,” Lubow said.

There is “a relatively fragile policy consensus” in place around the country right now, Lubow said.

If juvenile justice professionals don’t do an effective job of documenting what they did to push down youth incarceration rates, and demonstrate why placing fewer kids in confinement is better for communities, a sudden spike in violent crime could turn public opinion back toward punitive policies and reverse these downward trends, Lubow warned.

“The issue now is, are we going to effectively document what’s been done, what worked, and dispel once and for all the myth that the number of people we lock up is a proxy for how safe we are,” he said.

“I think the worst danger is failing to effectively document and study these changes, so that people who need to know are effectively convinced that this the right policy and practice and direction to head, rather than reverting back to what we did for so many decades.”

DC Reforms Offer Some Kids New Beginning

EDITOR’S NOTE: This month, our sister publication Youth Today features a  piece on D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) by Kaukab Jhumra Smith. Youth Today, is dedicated to providing quality journalism on issues of interest to those involved in the youth services industry. This, of course, includes stories in the arena of juvenile justice such as Kaukab's story. But this month’s issue also includes stories on what youth-oriented organizations should do to prepare for natural disasters, how to head off abusive relationships between teens, book reviews, opinion pieces, an explainer on the art of statistics and a photo spread on the impact of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on the youth-oriented organizations and young people.

Youth Today prints six time a year. You may also see postings daily at its website

Have a look at an excerpt of Kaukab's story below:

Marco Taylor chats with Capt. Steve Baynes, his former superintendent at New Beginnings, on a break from tearing down the barbed wire fence around the old Oak Hill Youth Center.

LAUREL, Md. — A few years ago, facilities manager Carl Matthews rounded a corner inside a residential unit of a secure juvenile center near Washington, D.C., and came across the dangling body of a boy who had, moments earlier, hung himself from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling of his room.

A sheet was wrapped so tightly around the boy’s throat that Matthews was afraid to cut it with an emergency knife. “I hoisted him up and another guy got his fingers in and we got him down. But that night was what haunted me,” Matthews said. “I just couldn’t fathom being that hopeless at 16.”

The boy survived. His suicide attempt was one more strike against the Oak Hill Youth Center, the secure juvenile facility for the District of Columbia that has been described by at least one advocate as “quite frankly, a hell-hole.” During its lifetime, from 1967 to 2009, Oak Hill developed a reputation as a grim breeding ground for adult prison, a “beat-up and beat-‘em-up” place that lumped together high-risk kids with low-risk ones and functioned as a rite of passage for generations of young black men.

In 2009, the District closed the 208-bed Oak Hill and opened an airy, glass-and-brick 60-bed campus less than a mile away, part of a sweeping set of reforms in the juvenile justice system that the city government began working on nearly a decade ago. In doing so, the District joined a growing list of jurisdictions that are moving away from the harshly punitive systems that became particularly widespread following spikes in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

In the last 15 years, as juvenile crime rates have fallen throughout the country – for reasons that even top analysts cannot definitively identify – so has public pressure to get tough on crime. As a result, jurisdictions like the District are able to adopt more innovative, rehabilitative approaches that keep young offenders closer to their families and offer them community-based services that take into account their age and brain development, said Akiva Liberman, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

While the District is near the forefront of this movement, it is certainly not alone, said Sarah Bryer, director of the D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network. States like California, Alabama, Florida and New York have undertaken similar measures to reduce the number of young people held in secure facilities. “Across the country, jurisdictions are realizing that incarcerating youth in secure confinement facilities neither serves public safety interests, doesn’t help the children, nor does it help the state budget,” Bryer said.

Reducing capacity at secure residential facilities frees up scarce resources for developing quality wrap-around services within the community, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If we increase the juvenile justice budget by 10 times, we would not have these (secure) buildings,” Butts said. “We would have a full-time teacher and a social worker and a cognitive therapist and a job placement coordinator. We would just create teams of support around that kid and try to recreate the good parenting that they’re lacking.”

In some cases, community-based services and monitoring may not be enough to maintain public safety, he said. “It will always be necessary to take some kids out who are incapable of playing by the rules and behaving,” Butts said. “But the risk is that institutions grow so comfortable with that that they lower the threshold for that commitment.”

He continued, “When you reduce capacity, it forces people to get serious about which young people really need to be locked up.”

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Exclusive Interview with Robert Listenbee, Incoming Head of Federal Office of Juvenile Justice

Robert Listenbee spoke on the phone Monday with defense attorney Robert Listenbee Jr., who was recently picked by President Barack Obama to lead the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. The office has not had a permanent administrator for four years. Listenbee, who has not yet received a formal federal appointment, continues to head the juvenile unit at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia in the meantime.

Listenbee spoke about the insights he brings to the national stage based upon his experiences with the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, and how his time as a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, and his stint as a secondary school teacher in Kenya as a young Harvard student sparked his passion for working with young people. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

JJIE: When will the appointment happen? Have they given you a timeline?

Listenbee: There’s no timeline. Not yet.

JJIE: Why did you want the job?

Listenbee: I’ve had the benefit in engaging in extensive reform efforts in the state of Pennsylvania, first in my office, the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, where we completely revamped the juvenile unit to address the unique needs of children. After that, I spent a lot of time working with a large number of different organizations in the state, but perhaps the most significant was working for the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which tackled the problem of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania.

There we had over 4,000 children who were directly impacted by a judge and a judicial system that ignored the constitutional rights of children, that placed children without benefit to counsel, that held children to waive counsel without proper colloquies, that addressed issues of children being in court without lawyers by not appointing lawyers.

And kids were sent away, they were hurt, they were sent away without just cause. That kind of thing really was of deep concern to me, and I worked with a very outstanding group of professionals here in this state who reformed the system in Luzerne County and established some parameters for reforming the entire juvenile justice system here in Pennsylvania. That, more than anything else, ignited my deep passion for working on the national level.

And there were a lot of reforms that came out of the Interbranch Commission that have been implemented as direct policy, either as laws or as new rules promulgated by the Supreme Court’s juvenile justice committee, so I’m very excited about all that.

I would say in addition, I’ve worked with the National Juvenile Defenders Center, where we’ve looked to see the extent to which In re Gault [Editor’s note: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that juveniles have the same rights to due process as adults] has been implemented across the United States. Even though Gault came into effect in 1967, the right to counsel is still not a right that’s widely recognized throughout the United States.

You go to countless jurisdictions where you do not find children having lawyers to represent them at all kinds of proceedings, or children are represented through the dispositional stage but once they go into placement there are no lawyers to represent them. Many of them languish in placement for extended periods of time, often without just cause. And that’s of deep concern to me.

In addition, we’ve done a lot of work trying to reduce the number of children who are going into placement disproportionately because of their race. We’ve looked at issues concerning disproportionate minority contact extensively here in Pennsylvania, and we’ve been able to develop collaborations between law enforcement and prosecutors to reduce disproportionate minority contact in our jurisdiction.

We developed training programs for law enforcement that have helped us really understand law enforcement better, and helped young people understand law enforcement better, and certainly helped law enforcement understand young people a lot better.

Those are the things that have really been of great interest to me, I’ve worked on them a long time, and they inspire me to want to do some of the same kinds of things at the national level.

JJIE: Do you think your experience as a black man brings something to the job?

Listenbee: Well… I certainly believe so. I’ve been in situations where I’ve encountered difficulties with law enforcement very early in my life in terms of just being apprehensive driving around in locations where the idea that a law enforcement officer could stop you without due process of law, without just cause, without probable cause. And I’ve worked with an awful lot of African American youth who feel they are unfairly treated by law enforcement. That’s probably more the direct impact.

And so when I represent them, I want to make sure they get high-quality representation, and when my staff members here at the Defenders Association represent them, I want to make sure they get excellent, outstanding representation, and so to that extent, yes, it has impacted me.

JJIE: Do you think it makes a difference to the kids who are in the system to have somebody head the federal office of juvenile justice who looks like the great majority of the kids in the system? Do you think that has any kind of symbolic value as well?

Listenbee: Well, I suspect it probably does, in the same way that having an African American president has tremendous symbolic value.

However, the most important thing that kids really want when they come to court, is they want to be treated fairly. They want to have quality representation, and they want to make sure they are not being treated any differently than any other children that come into the system.

Also, parents and guardians of children who come into our system really want someone to communicate with them and talk about issues and concerns that they have about their children going into the juvenile justice system. And to that extent I think it really does matter that the person who is involved with OJJDP has some background and experience really understanding the plight of children.

That’s not to say that being a defense attorney’s a requirement, or being an African American is a requirement, but whoever does the job should have deep compassion and concern for the kids who are in the system. I certainly bring a lot of that, and I’ve worked with a lot of people, including prosecutors and law enforcement included, who have those same passions and concerns. So I’m motivated by their activities, I’ve worked with an awful lot of them over the years, and I know they want the system to reflect that particular value as well.

JJIE: What are some of the successes under the OJJDP in the last 10 years, and some areas where you think they haven’t done as well?

Listenbee: That I really won’t comment on at this time. When I’ve had a chance to get situated, I’ll be more than willing to answer any questions you have. It’s just not for me to do at this juncture because I’m not in a position to make the best judgment.

JJIE: I figured you’d say that but I thought I’d ask anyway. Since we’re on the subject, what would be your top priorities as head of the OJJDP?

Listenbee: (Laughs) Again, I’ll be more than willing to talk to you about that once I’ve had a chance to go to orientation, talk to my immediate supervisors, including Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, and make sure I understand what the priorities of the attorney general are and the president. They’re the ones who have appointed me, and I want to make sure that I maintain fidelity to their priorities as well.

I certainly have an awful lot that I think is important based on my many years in juvenile justice, and I certainly will be seeking to share that and agree on a set of priorities.

JJIE: Can you comment on what you see as the role of the OJJDP?

Listenbee: The OJJDP’s role is set by statute. It has certain core responsibilities, and certainly I intend to focus on those, which include of course conducting research to make sure we understand what works in our system and what doesn’t work, and discarding those things that do not work. Disproportionate minority contact, reducing that across the nation, is one of the core responsibilities.

It also has a mission to understand what the best practices are in the nation and to share those with people all across the nation who are practitioners. There’s a very large juvenile justice community that is woven together fairly extensively, and that community is yearning for a clear direction at this point about where juvenile justice practice should be heading. And certainly I’ll be working with the professionals at the OJJDP and colleagues in the field throughout the nation to make sure we give a clear direction to where we want to go.

I’d like to point out one other thing that’s not really well understood that I really want to emphasize.

A lot of issues with juvenile delinquency occur in rural areas and in tribal areas. And frequently people are not aware of this, and certainly the people at OJJDP are aware of it. We want to make sure we do whatever we can to address the issues and concerns of children in those areas as well.

JJIE: As co-chair of the national taskforce on children’s exposure to violence, you held listening sessions around the country. What significant role can rank-and-file workers in the juvenile justice field play in drafting federal policy?

Listenbee: I certainly would follow up on some of the techniques we used to with the children’s exposure to violence taskforce. We had listening sessions because we had a limited amount of time and we wanted to gather as much information as we could. We went to places where we knew there were issues and concerns, such as military bases and rural areas in Alaska, that kind of thing, so that we could make sure that we had at least some basic ideas about what the challenges were.

As I move into my position, I certainly would be open to listening to professionals throughout the entire field and throughout the nation to find out what the issues and challenges are that they see. I really want to know what they are and I want to have the average people involved and also the experts in the field involved.

So I’m going to be reaching out, and one of the reasons I reached out to you was because I want to make it clear that there is a place for youth, and youth engagement, and a place for youth and family engagement, in addressing the issues and concerns that we have.

I’ve been at the bar of the court too many times with parents who came in and had no idea of what was happening with their children. With children who were at the bar of the court and had no idea of what was happening to them.

So I think we have to do a better job across the board in explaining to children and families what’s going on in our juvenile justice system and why a particular type of treatment or placement is going to best address their needs.

Often we send children away to places far from their families and we do not explain to the families or their children why they’re being sent there. And oftentimes we do not match the specific needs that children have with the kinds of places that we’re sending them.

As a direct result of that, the children come back, they have many of the same problems they had when they left, and they get re-placed later on because they still haven’t addressed the issues and concerns that they have.

So I want to make sure that people understand that I’m going to be there listening, trying to understand what’s going on, at the level where the system impacts children and their families, and not just at the research level, and not just at the summit level, because I think we have an awful lot to learn from our families and our kids.

JJIE: Is there any child in particular whose story stands out for you or have motivated you to keep doing what you’re doing?

Listenbee: There are an awful lot of kids who have influenced me. You know -- an awful lot.

We had a child who was in placement here -- who was killed while he was in placement. That had a pretty big impact on me.
We don’t send kids to placements so they can be put in restraints unnecessarily, and end up with bruises on their head, bounced on the floor, (with) the kinds of restraints that are dangerous and not permitted by law -- and dead. So that young man’s death – Walter Brown was his name -- was pretty impactful.

We began here in Pennsylvania to reduce the number of restraints in placement. And working closely to ensure that our attorneys who visit children while they’re in placement bring back reports on their well-being. We don’t interfere with placement programs per se but we do make sure that the kids are safe.

That’s certainly has had a tremendous impact on me. I’ve had other clients die in placement as well, and it really does make you feel like – maybe we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do in the system, if kids who are in placement and they’re not a threat to anybody, they’re not doing harm to anybody but they’re being restrained because of inappropriate behavior, that they’re being harmed, and I don’t think that’s necessary.

I think a lot of laws have been passed to help with this kind of a problem, but that’s certainly something that really deeply concerns me and all the members of my staff. We believe the system is supposed to help kids and not hurt them. So we really do get actively engaged in addressing those issues and concerns.

JJIE: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important for our readers to know?

Listenbee: The only other thing I would mention is that I was a house parent for four years. And I lived with gifted and talented children while working with children in the delinquency system…So I got a real chance – a really good opportunity to learn a lot about what young people think and how they act and what their priorities and concerns are on a daily basis.

And I guess the one thing I would add is that I honestly believe that a juvenile justice system should be seeking to provide the kinds of services to children that they would want to provide to their own children.

That our standards really should be, “Is this good enough for my kid? Is this the kind of program I would want for my child if my child had difficulties and needed to be in the juvenile justice system? Do I have the kind of high aspirations for these children – not just that they shouldn’t get re-arrested – but that they should have hopes and dreams, that will give them productive lives and have families and kids too?”

That’s really what I think our system ought to be doing. And that’s the kind of a goal that I think we as practitioners of a system should have.

Those are the kinds of caring and compassionate feelings that we should bring to the task.

Photo by David Kindler

New National Standards For Legal Defense Could Help Juveniles

It happens too often in court systems around the country. A teenager is charged with a crime. His family can’t afford a lawyer, but the court won’t assign him one until he can prove a lack of funds.

He meets his lawyer for the first time a few minutes before he’s due to appear in court. The lawyer’s waving a file and using words the teenager doesn’t understand. There’s not much time to discuss the circumstances around the charges, the teen’s options in court and their various consequences.

The teen heads before the judge, unprepared and uncertain. He’s found guilty.

As courtrooms juggle massive caseloads, measures to ensure a robust defense for juveniles can fall by the wayside, leading to life-long repercussions for minors. Now a national organization devoted to the legal defense of juveniles has released a comprehensive, peer-reviewed set of standards that it hopes will go a long way toward ensuring that lawyers assigned to defend minors can offer them the best possible representation in court.

“What we have found in courtrooms around the country is that there is a failure to recognize the special skills and knowledge that is required to confidently and zealously represent juveniles,” said Cathryn Crawford, a contributor to the standards who helped manage the Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s not a consequence of people simply not caring, but there is a pervasive attitude that juvenile court is not important because cases are less severe than adult court.”

Increasingly, however, a botched defense can impact the rest of a minor’s life. “Although juvenile court was conceived with the idea that it would serve as a kind and just parent, and was meant to facilitate rehabilitation and not punishment, the courts have become increasingly more punitive and the consequences for children prosecuted in court have become more significant and longer-lasting,” Crawford said.

In response to the need to improve the way minors are represented in court, the National Juvenile Defender Center spent five years collaborating with dozens of legal experts across several juvenile defense organizations, overseeing a rigorous drafting and reviewing process that resulted in the 162-page “National Juvenile Defense Standards” booklet, the first stand-alone national blueprint of its kind.

Released in early February, the booklet lays out the ethical obligations, training requirements, communication needs and best practices for defending minors, creating a framework that its supporters hope will be adopted by jurisdictions around the country.

“Children are different than adults. The United States Supreme Court has key cases that made that absolutely clear,” said Robert Listenbee Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the current chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “It takes years to become a highly trained professional in this field, but a lot of times lawyers believe that because they’re excellent adult defense attorneys that they can transfer over and do juvenile work quite easily. But that's really not the case. You really have to understand what’s happening in the minds of juveniles.”

The standards encourage jurisdictions to allow defenders to specialize in juvenile cases and train for that purpose. “Many systems do not treat juvenile defenders as a specialization and so the lawyers in that system may not be getting access to the best information to treat their clients,” said Tim Curry, the managing attorney at the National Juvenile Defender Center.

The standards also encourage justice systems to presume that all juveniles lack the funds to pay for their own defense, speeding up their access to a lawyer. “Because children are not financially secure in and of themselves, there should be a presumption of indigence for children,” Curry said.

There is no national bar association for juvenile defenders, and defense lawyers are not obligated to follow these standards. But its architects said they hope the standards serve as a model for states and local jurisdictions to develop their own codes of conduct, or to use a job-training tool for defenders, or to evaluate their job performance.

“One of the realities that exist in a lot of courtrooms around the country is that lawyers don’t meet their clients until just before they appear in court,” Crawford said. “In many jurisdictions, they give advice and the kids will plead guilty on the first or second court appearance. That’s not appropriate.”

The standards were clear in expecting lawyers to communicate clearly with their minor clients. “The lawyer needs time to collect and examine the facts of the case, they need time to interview the client, find out the client’s version of events and the client’s priorities and opinion of where the case needs to go,” Crawford said. “If the lawyer comes to court and the judge is saying, ‘I want to get this done today,’ they can point to the standards and say it’s my ethical obligation to sit down with client and without distraction get the facts of the case and the objectives of my client.”

The most important thing is to get the booklet to lawyers and judges around the country, supporters said.

“There are a number of different ways that the objectives of these standards can be realized and the key, I think, is just getting them in people’s hands,” Crawford said. “Even if they are not binding, they can nevertheless be instructive to individual lawyers who are trying to determine what their obligations and responsibilities are.”

The National Juvenile Defender Center is distributing paper copies to anyone who wants them, and has an electronic copy available for download on its website.

About 1,200 hard copies of the booklet have been sent out so far, with hundreds more in the pipeline, and an unknown number have been downloaded electronically and shared on listservs around the country, Curry said.

The current system has been in place for so long that few people question current practices, Crawford said. These standards give people a chance to reassess “why it’s important to provide competent representation and ensure a fair justice system.”

Photo by ErictheFish |

Feds to Audit Solitary Confinement Policy

The Federal Bureau of Prisons will hire an independent auditor to review the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, according to a statement released by the bureau. The move could impact thousands of juveniles in adult facilities who are frequently isolated from adult inmates, sometimes on the pretext of protecting their personal safety.

“The National Institute of Corrections will be awarding a contract in the weeks ahead to retain an independent auditor to examine the BOP's use of restrictive housing and also share information from the states and others in the corrections profession,” the federal bureau said in a prepared statement. “We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) held a hearing last June to examine the fiscal, human rights and public safety consequences of keeping prisoners in isolation. Durbin responded to the bureau’s announcement by reiterating his hope that the practice would be restricted in federal prisons, and pointed out that the bureau has reduced its segregated population by 25 percent since the hearing last summer.

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore,” Durbin said in his prepared response. “I am confident the Bureau of Prisons will permit a thorough and independent review and look forward to seeing the results when they are made public.”

Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testified at the Senate hearing last June that federal prison facilities were operating at 40 percent above their capacity, not including populations housed at private facilities. “Inmate overcrowding may become a catalyst for violence which poses real risks to the lives of staff and inmates,” Samuels told the Senate subcommittee.

The federal prison system incarcerates 215,000 people, and prisoners are isolated far too frequently, said an ACLU response to the federal announcement. “Similar reviews in state prison systems have led to dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, generating millions of dollars in taxpayer savings,” the ACLU said. “We hope and expect that the review announced today will lead the Bureau to significantly curtail its use of this draconian, inhumane, and expensive practice.”

Last June, psychology professor Dr. Craig Haney described to the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights a 1970s study that divided mentally sound Stanford University students into two groups: one to role-play prison guards and the other, prisoners in solitary confinement. Over time, Haney found that the mental health of the prisoners deteriorated significantly.

“When I began to study real prisons, examining and evaluating conditions of confinement in prison systems throughout the United States and in a number of foreign countries, I continued to be guided by the early lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment: prisons are psychologically powerful places, ones that are capable of shaping and transforming the thoughts and actions of the persons who enter them, often in unintended and adverse ways,” Haney testified.

The impact on juveniles of such isolation can be profound.

Minors and LGBT youth serving time in adult facilities are frequently put into solitary confinement for weeks or even months by prison staff in attempts to punish them, maintain federally mandated “sight and sound” separation, or keep them safe, sometimes forcing young people to choose between physical assault and isolation, according to “Growing Up Locked Down,” a recent 147-page report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Once in solitary confinement, the long periods of isolation, physical inactivity and the lack of human contact can seriously impair adolescents’ physical and mental development, the report said. The practice was against international human rights law and the U.S. Bill of Rights, constituting “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” it emphasized.

“Solitary confinement cannot be squared with the special status of adolescents under U.S. constitutional law regarding crime and punishment. While not unusual, it turns the detention of young people in adult jails and prisons into an experience of unquestionable cruelty,” it found.

Prisons needed to find other ways to manage the challenges of adolescent inmates, the report said.

“Young people can be better managed in specialized facilities, designed to house them, staffed with specially trained personnel, and organized to encourage positive behaviors. Punitive schemes can be reorganized to stress immediate and proportionate interventions and to strictly limit and regulate short-term isolation as a rare exception,” it said.

The federal government does not release data on the number of young people held in solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons, nor do any states, according to the report. “But the available data suggest that the practice is prevalent in particular jurisdictions and occurs nationwide,” the report said.

The solitary confinement of juveniles has become a problem only in the last 30 or so years, since stricter laws have led to the prosecution of more juveniles as adults, advocates said.

Photo by Ryan Schill | JJIE