No More Delays Mr. President: Appoint the Nation’s Next Juvenile Justice Chief

Four years ago, President Obama was inaugurated, and we expected that within a few months the President would nominate a permanent administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). But this past week, as President Obama renewed the oath of office, we are still waiting. Each administration since the office was created in 1974 has made the appointment except President Obama’s.

The President should end this delay and here’s why:

The OJJDP is the leading federal agency responsible for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention issues. Created under the landmark Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974, the OJJDP plays a vital role in assisting state and local governments in addressing juvenile delinquency through federal grants, research and guidance. For nearly 40 years, the OJJDP has helped states to create and sustain effective approaches to reduce juvenile delinquency, and develop programs that are cost-effective, improve public safety and treat court-involved youth appropriately.

The OJJDP administrator articulates a national juvenile justice agenda that is based on research on what works and what doesn’t, as well as on adolescent development, and helps states use the research, and implement best practices in reforming their juvenile justice systems.

In particular, the administrator’s role is to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of the main federal piece of juvenile justice legislation, the JJDPA, which has provided critical federal funding to states to comply with a set of core requirements designed to protect children and meet their unique needs.

While successful, the JJDPA could be substantially strengthened to address more of the pressing needs in the juvenile justice field, such as reducing the overuse of incarceration, reducing racial and ethnic disparities and closing the loopholes that allow some status offenders to be detained and some youth to be placed in adult jails, despite the original intentions of the law.

Further, the administrator advocates for juvenile justice funding appropriations from Congress. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, federal juvenile justice funding has steadily declined — down 83 percent from 1999 to 2010 — and the appropriations caps contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011 have only accelerated the pace of cuts.

The JJDPA has been sorely underfunded, and has not been updated in more than a decade; it continues to languish. Neither the House nor the Senate has introduced reauthorization bills this past session, and the Obama administration has been surprisingly silent on the matter.

Given the importance of this appointment, why the delay?

It’s not clear to this advocate.

There’s been no shortage of good candidates willing to take on this job. The White House has received names and resumes on numerous occasions, and now that the Senate confirmation requirement has been removed the administration can make this appointment without approval from the Senate.

Juvenile justice stakeholders have made hundreds of calls, written letters and contacted key White House officials. Still, there has been no response.

Members of Congress have also asked about the delay, including some House members who wrote to the President.

And several news outlets have editorialized on this, including The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, whose editorial declares “It’s well past time for Obama to name a leader for the office.” The Washington Post editorial states, “A lengthy vacancy at the top in the federal office charged with combating juvenile delinquency and improving conditions of youth incarceration requires President Obama’s swift attention.”

No more delays Mr. President. It’s been long enough. We need a juvenile justice expert and a leader as the nation’s next OJJDP administrator. And we need one now.

State Advisors to Federal Juvenile Justice Office Briefed on Reforms

Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice meeting in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thirteen advocates and professionals from around the country who serve as advisors to the federal office for juvenile justice met for two days last week in Washington, D.C., to share information on reforms and funding at the state and federal levels.

The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, which normally meets online every few months, gathered face-to-face for the first time in a year. Its last online meeting occurred Aug. 10. 

Some of the reforms the committee discussed lie within the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention itself. Melodee Hanes, the acting office administrator, told committee members on the opening day of the meeting that a structural reorganization of her office, which has been in the works for months, would be announced soon. The office is also close to releasing its program plan for next year, she said.

The associate administrator for budget and planning, Janet Chiancone, described to the committee a “mixed” outlook for federal funding for juvenile justice in the 2013 fiscal year. Federal money for programs administered by the federal juvenile justice office has steadily fallen from $461.5 million in fiscal year 2009 to $277 million in fiscal year 2012, a 41 percent decline, she said.

Although the 2013 fiscal year began Oct. 1, a gridlocked Congress has yet to reach a budget deal. The proposed House budget for 2013 further slashes funds for OJJDP programs to $214 million, while the Senate version increases funding from last year’s level for the OJJDP to $299.5 million, she said. Both chambers are in recess until after the presidential election.

On Friday, committee members were briefed on changes in federal and state legislation on juvenile justice in recent years, trends that speakers said were driven by falling rates of juvenile crime, declining youth incarceration rates, the availability of better research and a shift away from treating children like adults under the law.

Friday’s speakers included Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Washington-D.C.-

Bart Lubow

based Coalition for Juvenile Justice – a network of citizens, advocates and professionals from every state who advise their local governments on juvenile justice issues and monitor their adherence to federal guidelines — and Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that has played a key role in funding reform initiatives around the country.

Sarah Brown, a senior researcher at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group of state legislators and their staff, described her recent report on trends in state legislation on juvenile justice in the last 10 years.

Speaking from Colorado via videoconference, Brown pointed to three separate rulings since 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court that have adjusted federal standards for juvenile sentencing by abolishing the death penalty, life sentences without parole for non-homicides, and mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. These rulings reflect the impact of new research on adolescent development and highlight how many states are shifting toward treating juvenile offenders differently than adults, she said.

Between 2001 and 2011, 20 states passed laws to expand the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, such as by raising the age limit for juvenile offenses, she said. Other state trends include the passage of legislation improving young people’s access to sound legal defense, reallocating funds from correctional facilities to community-based alternatives, and focusing on young people’s mental health needs.

At least 10 states have passed laws to address racial disparities in the detention and incarceration of youth in the last 10 years, Brown said. And more than half of all states have passed laws aimed at supporting young people once they are released from detention or confinement.

Hornberger, who has lobbied Congress for system reform for 25 years, provided historical perspective on the trends affecting federal policy changes and provided recommendations for future legislation, including the long-overdue reauthorization of a sweeping federal bill on juvenile justice that was first passed by Congress in 1974.

“Generally, Congress has regarded juvenile justice and delinquency prevention to be a limited role,” Hornberger said. However, the 1970s brought a significant shift in the way people thought about the detention and incarceration of youth, their treatment as status offenders, their placement in adult jails, and their separation from adult offenders by sight and sound, she said.

The resulting federal legislation, the sweeping Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, marked “a sea change” that forced states to meet federal standards on how to treat youth within the justice system, Hornberger said. Subsequent reauthorizations of the Act in the 1980s and 1990s added more requirements for states, including new rules asking states to explore racial disparities in their confinement of youth.

Last reauthorized 10 years ago, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was due for reauthorization again in 2007 but has languished in Congress. Although a U.S. Senate committee has twice approved the reauthorization in recent years, the bills did not make it to the Senate floor. The House of Representatives has not acted on a reauthorization bill nor any legislation to do with juvenile justice in the last six years, Hornberger said.

Hornberger remains stoic. The 2002 reauthorization took six years to push through, she said. “It’s always been a long haul to get this Act reauthorized.”

In general, federal policy on juvenile justice has traditionally swung like a pendulum, with equilibrium rarely in the middle, she said. “Members of Congress are consistently going back and forth between punitive and rehabilitative approaches.”

Policy swings are frequently affected by changes in leadership, whether in the White House, on congressional committees, or within the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention itself, she said.

Congressional legislation still demonstrates a trend toward criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, such as underage drinking or sexting, Hornberger said. And federal legislators are still wrestling with the choices of institutionalized care versus family and community-based solutions, she said.

“There have been trends in time where national policy has really spurred state reforms,” like in the 1970s, Hornberger said. But these days, national policy is playing catch-up with reforms initiated by national foundations and some states, she added.

While federal trends in legislation and policy so far appear promising, the legislative progress is fragile, she warned — especially in critical areas like the consideration of adolescent development and racial and ethnic disparities.

Speaking after Hornberger, Lubow gave a spirited presentation that made clear he too thought there was lots of room for improvement.

For every 100,000 young people in the United States, 336 are locked up, the highest rate in the developed world, he said. South Africa is in second place, at nearly one-fifth the rate of the United States. This could not be explained by disparities in juvenile crime, he said.

“We lock kids up in this country for a lot of minor stuff. In fact, we lock them up for things that we do not lock adults up for,” Lubow said. “We do that, frankly, because adults are bullies. When we get frustrated with kids who do not follow our rules, we throw them into detention centers.”

What would happen, he asked, if judges and law enforcement could not fall back upon incarcerating kids when they were angered and frustrated by their behavior? “What positions, what creativity, what alternatives would we come up with?” he asked.

Necessary innovations include limiting the types of young offenders who get incarcerated, increasing non-residential community alternatives to incarceration, and changing the financial incentives for local governments to keep their children within their own system and not the state’s, Lubow said.

Sometimes reforms only happen after someone takes off a shoe and bangs it on the table, Lubow told the committee.

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

What About the Girls?

Juvenile crime has been declining for years and is now at historic lows. That’s the good news. The bad news is that girls are now the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. Although the system is still dominated by boys, in 2009, girls made up 30 percent of all juvenile arrests; up from 20 percent in 2008. Two-thirds are girls of color.

Why this increase in girl delinquents? Program operators say there is a new kind of girl coming into their programs — girls who are more troubled than those they’ve worked with in the past. These operators blame the growing ills that many adolescent girls face every day in their communities; fractured families, poverty, poor schooling and the increased availability of drugs and alcohol. Research says that adolescent girls, already struggling with self esteem and identity issues, can be very vulnerable to the conditions around them, leading them to high-risk behavior.

Other experts say that the rise in girls’ arrests has less to do with growing community dysfunction and changes in girls’ behavior, than with society’s growing intolerance for even minor crime and violence. They note that today’s courts are coming down much harder on girl offenders than they have in the past — even for low-level offenses.

Understanding the “why” of this spike in teen girl offenders is critical. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed: What do we do about the girls who are coming into the juvenile justice system in unprecedented numbers? How do we meet their needs? How do we reduce the number of girls getting caught up in the system?

I’m not implying that the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system trump those of boys. However, because boys have always dominated the system, juvenile facilities are geared to males and have been slow to respond to the growing girl population.

The research documenting differences between adjudicated girls and boys is unambiguous. Girls commit far fewer violent offenses than boys, and are more likely to be arrested for property crimes (i.e.: shop lifting) or status offenses such as running way, truancy and curfew violations. A far higher percentage of girls than boys enter the juvenile justice system with a history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and are known to self medicate through alcohol and drugs. Finally, adolescent girls need different health services than boys, including health education, gynecological exams, and sometimes, pregnancy-related care.

The bottom line is that, in most cases, girls in the system do not get their needs met and are often re-traumatized through dehumanizing and abusive treatment.

For advocacy organizations like the Child Welfare League of America, (CWLA) the answer to my question, what do we do about the girls, is straightforward. CWLA has pushed for gender-specific programming to be implemented in the juvenile justice system.

This programming recognizes girls’ specific needs and provides them with opportunities for change and growth. Researchers have identified program elements that address these needs: an emotionally safe space where girls can hold nurturing conversations and develop trusting relationships with other females; mentors whose experiences reflect the realities of girls lives and who exemplify survival and growth; education about women’s health, including female sexuality; support for continuing education; health care, including treatment for trauma, drug dependency or pregnancy and childbirth and opportunities to make  positive life changes.

Further, CWLA believes that community institutions must work together to reduce the number of adolescent and teen girls entering the juvenile justice system in the first place. Activities that provide girls with access to caring adults, a healthy sense of their strengths, individuality and sexual identity as well as a feeling of optimism about the future, can help counter the risk of delinquency.

Certainly, gender-specific programming in the juvenile justice system and other community institutions is a key piece of what troubled, vulnerable girls need. However, currently, there are few programs and strategies either inside or outside of the juvenile justice system that provide this kind of support and guidance. And things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, (JJDPA), requires states to submit a three-year plan to the Department of Justice in order to access funding — including a plan for implementing gender-specific services. However, advocates say this requirement needs to be strengthened and that JJDPA has not been re-authorized since 2002. Also, many states are attempting to divert status offenders to counseling or other community-based services to prevent entry into the juvenile justice system. But there are not enough alternative programs for all who need them, which means many girls are being incarcerated for minor offenses when what they really need is supportive programming and adult guidance.

So the question remains, what do we do about the girls?

We can continue to feed adolescent girls into an inadequate, dehumanizing system. Or we can strongly advocate that all federal, state and local agencies with youth serving mandates work with community institutions to help these vulnerable girls become strong, productive women. The choice is ours.

Senate Subcommittee Approves Funding for OJJDP, Full Vote Expected Today

Flickr | Will Palmer

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science approved 2012 funding for a number of agencies at a meeting yesterday. Among programs receiving funds are the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), approved for $251 million.

YouthToday has a breakdown of where the OJJDP funds are to be spent:

-$60 million for the Missing and Exploited Children Programs.

-$55 million for mentoring grants.

-$45 million for state formula grants, given to states on the condition that they adhere to basic standards in regard to the detainment of juveniles, and address racial disparities in the system.

-$33 million for delinquency prevention grants to be dispersed by state advisory groups, although Congress often designates the majority of it for grants to Native American tribes and enforcement of underage drinking laws.

-$30 million for Juvenile Accountability Block Grants (JABG), which go to state juvenile justice planning agencies based on the size of a state’s youth population.

-$20 million for the Victims of Child Abuse Programs.

-$8 million for the Community-Based Violence Prevention Initiative, a project conceived by the Obama administration in 2009.

The full committee will meet later today to mark up the bill. A vote on the appropriations is also expected.

Much of the funding for OJJDP falls under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has not been reauthorized since 2002 despite repeated attempts in both the Senate and House. Advocates and lawmakers are seeking reforms to the bill’s core protections they say will keep children in the system safer.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the reauthorization bill in the Senate in 2008 where it was voted out of committee. Leahy reintroduced the bill in 2009 but the House failed to take it up.

“There hasn’t been much action on it lately,” said Eric Solomon, Director of Media and Communications for the Campaign for Youth Justice. “The House never did anything with it [in 2010]. Hard to say what’s on their agenda.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Leahy said he is “working to streamline the legislation given budget concerns.”

In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that included significant cuts to juvenile justice funding, authorizing $50 million less than the Senate for OJJDP programs. The $200 million appropriation reduces funding for state formula grants under the JJDPA and eliminates entirely funding for juvenile justice demonstration grants, Juvenile Accountability Block Grants and Title V Local Delinquency Prevention Grants.