WASHINGTON, D.C. – Juvenile justice advocates are dismayed by a new law that they say threatens to accelerate the fading relevance of juvenile justice reform within the federal government.
To the chagrin of many, President Barack Obama has not nominated anyone for the U.S. Senate to confirm as a permanent leader of federal juvenile justice efforts since he took office. For three and a half years, the federal office responsible for setting national policy, sharing research on best practices and funding state initiatives on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention has chugged along on temporary leadership, first under acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and since January, under acting Administrator Melodee Hanes.
If the White House does name a person to fill the long-vacant position – something unlikely to happen soon, advocates say, given a looming presidential election -- such a Senate confirmation will never come.
That’s because effective Aug. 10, the process of confirming a person to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has fundamentally changed. Under the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president earlier this summer, the Senate will no longer have to confirm the nominations of 170 government positions, including that of the administrator of the OJJDP. The president can now simply appoint someone to that office.
“I’m certainly not in favor of it. I think it downgrades the position of the office,” said Gordon Raley, who was staff director of a House subcommittee at the time that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which created an office focused on juvenile justice and delinquency issues within the U.S. Department of Justice, was being drafted.
“Kids generally don’t have high priority when it comes to the way things are done in Washington,” Raley said. “Kids in trouble even less so. To get someone who will be able to get stature in the position and be able to work across agencies -- that's what the office was supposed to do.”
Ira Schwartz, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to lead the federal office, echoed Raley’s characterization of the original intention of the 1974 legislation. It drew tremendous bipartisan support for bringing attention to the “many, many problems” faced by children who came into contact with the juvenile justice system, he said.
“Children were not receiving adequate due process, proper representation in the courts, they were being incarcerated for relatively minor and often times non-criminal offenses,” Schwartz said. “They were also being incarcerated for longer periods of time than their adult counterparts who had committed similar offenses.”
The position of the office administrator came up a lot during the drafting of the 1974 Act, Raley said. “The point we wanted to make at the time was that this was a position that needed a presidential nomination and Senate approval at the same time. It needed this stature.”
JJIE spoke to many other people in the juvenile justice field, including another former administrator of the office, and their views on the change were nearly unanimous: removing the Senate confirmation requirement, even in the name of expediency, will have a negative effect on the ability of the office to advocate for juvenile justice issues at the federal level. Hanes, acting administrator of the OJJDP, did not respond to requests for comment.
“I just don't think you have as much power or as much clout if you don’t have Senate confirmation. They don’t really know you then,” said Marion Mattingly, Washington editor of the Juvenile Justice Update, who has followed the juvenile justice field for decades.
Liz Ryan, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Youth Justice, says removing the requirement for Congressional confirmation opens the doors to more partisan and less-qualified appointees for the office in the future.
“Particularly in a situation where you have an unfriendly administration or an administration that views this as a low priority, we won’t have the ability to stop the appointment or hear their views prior to a vote,” Ryan said.
The director of Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Shay Bilchik, who served as administrator of the OJJDP from 1994 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton, also said he was “disappointed” when he heard the law had been signed.
Sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act is intended to make it easier for the Obama administration to fill 170 vacant federal positions, some with nominees whose confirmations have been blocked or delayed for months by a partisan or distracted Congress. Schumer’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Some juvenile justice practitioners, however, take a pragmatic approach. Like Irv Katz, president of the National Human Services Assembly, an association of the country’s largest youth and human services organizations, including the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
“What I would observe is that we have had good and bad people in that position regardless of the congressional approval process,” Katz said. He doesn’t blame the administration for the change.
“The whole appointment and confirmation process is so dysfunctional and fractured, that it leads to nominees who are not confirmed in the appropriate period of time, and nominees that withdraw, and a reluctance on part of the administration to put names forward knowing that it will not move forward,” Katz said. “So it appoints an interim person in the chain of command who they know will do a perfectly fine job.”
Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, who serves on the federal advisory council for juvenile justice for OJJDP, also doesn’t see a problem with the change.
“If the confirmation process is so cumbersome and politically problematic that we end up with no one there, then that’s not very useful,” Moeser said.
But, several people have pointed out, there has never been an Obama nominee for the job of OJJDP administrator, even though, as JJIE’s sister publication Youth Today reported at the time, two candidates, Karen Baynes of Georgia, and Vicki Spriggs of Texas, came close in 2009 and 2010 respectively before withdrawing from consideration.
“The fact that this administration wasn’t even able to provide a name, or feel strongly enough that they could find someone, tells me that’s a problem with this administration giving this a priority, than it is with the Senate not pushing it through,” Raley said.
Photo by Justice.gov
The National Girls Institute, established in 2010 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), is dedicated to providing local and private organizations with assistance and training to help prevent female minors from entering the nation’s juvenile justice system.
Melodee Hanes, Acting Administrator of OJJDP, said that the organization has a responsibility to provide assistance, tools and other resources to programs designed to keep America’s girls out of courtrooms and detention facilities.
“This website,” she said, “is an important step forward in our efforts to improve the lives of girls across the country.”
In addition to providing technical assistance and training materials, the website also includes extensive data and tool sets, many of which are customized in regards to specific needs of young women and girls, including trauma and cultural responsiveness resources.
The National Girls Institute is also supported by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Dr. Lawanda Ravoira, director of the NCCD Center for Girls and Young Women, said the website is a critical resource for the general public to fully understand the many issues regarding young women and the nation’s juvenile justice system.
“The website will be a dynamic way to share timely information about the urgent needs of girls, as well as giving girls, their parents and caregivers practical resources,” she said. “Most importantly, the website provides a vehicle for bringing girls’ issues to the forefront, so we can effect positive change.”
Last week, Melody Hanes assumed the mantle of acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a temporary position held for three years by her predecesor. She may be there just as long. The Obama administration appears in no hurry to permanently fill the position and controversial legislation to remove Senate approval for the OJJDP administrator passed the Senate but is stalled in the House.
While Congress debates the issue, Hanes, formerly the Deputy Administrator for Policy at OJJDP, faces an uphill battle as acting administrator of an agency that has had its budget slashed nearly $150 million by Congress in recent years. But former colleagues say Hanes, a one-time prosecutor and law professor, is uniquely qualified to make the most of a job hamstrung by its lack of permanence.
In the courtroom, Hanes was a fair but tough prosecutor, says Jerry Foxhoven, an attorney who both worked with Hanes and faced her in court when she was deputy county attorney in Polk County, Iowa.
“She was tenacious, but not in a bad way,” he said. “She was reasonable, but she certainly wasn’t afraid to go to court and she wasn’t afraid to fight you.”
Hanes was part of the major offense bureau in Polk County where she handled major felony cases, including child abuse and child molestation.
“She was doing pretty significant cases,” Foxhoven said. “Pretty important stuff.”
According to John Sarcone, the Polk County Attorney and Hanes’ former boss, Hanes was passionate about helping kids.
“She did an excellent job for us,” he said. “She cared about the kids. She was a good litigator and advocate.”
In Sarcone’s opinion, Hanes’ ability to help kids is without question. But he hopes she can make progress on other issues as well.
“I do hope there is some role to play for her to help state and local prosecutors get the funding and the help they need,” he said. “I’m hoping she can get the ear of the [U.S.] attorney general. Mel is good at that.”
Before joining OJJDP, Hanes was an adjunct professor teaching child abuse law at her alma mater, Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, where Foxhoven is now an assistant professor and executive director of the Neal and Bea Smith Legal Clinic. He says Hanes was well-liked by faculty and students.
“She’s very personable,” Foxhoven said. “At Drake, she was very professional, open and friendly. She was well-regarded.”
Still, experts fear those qualities may not be enough.
“A permanent administrator has more power and clout,” said Marion Mattingly, Washington editor of the Juvenile Justice Update. “It makes a huge difference.”
Mattingly worries that OJJDP’s budget cuts and lack of permanent leadership signal the beginning of the end for the federal agency that promotes best practices in the states’ juvenile justice systems.
“The program has not been reauthorized for years,” Mattingly said. “There are those who think it could be dead.”
She continued, “I’ve been involved for a long time and I am concerned. There are those who think Melodee [Hanes] was appointed to see to it that the program dies.”
But Mattingly dismisses those rumors.
“I don’t think she would that,” she said. “But it is going to be tough.”
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After nearly three years as acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Jeff Slowikowski is stepping down. According to a statement Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Laurie O. Robinson, the White House has named Melodee Hanes as new acting administrator.
Hanes was formerly the principal deputy administrator for OJJDP, serving as counselor to Slowikowski.
"We have welcomed the expertise and energy that Melodee Hanes has brought to the office in her role as counselor to the acting administrator--and will continue to bring to her new leadership role,” Robinson said. “Improving the quality of life for children, while ensuring their safety, is a priority for the Attorney General and I look forward to her leadership within the Office of Justice Programs.”
Slowikowski will remain at OJJDP as acting deputy administrator for policy. As acting administrator, Slowikowski oversaw more than $1.5 billion in funding for juvenile programs.
"I want to thank Jeff for his exceptional service,” Robinson said. “Jeff's leadership has been vital to the important work of OJJDP and to the many successes we have had in the office over the past three years."
Prior to her tenure at OJJDP, Hanes served 16 years as a deputy county attorney in Polk County, Iowa and Billings, Mont., primarily prosecuting child abuse, sexual assault and homicide cases. As an adjunct professor of law at Drake University, Hanes taught child abuse law among other subjects.
OJJDP is a component of the Office of Justice Programs and supports states and local communities to implement effective programs for juveniles.
As JJIE reported in August 2011, President Obama has drawn fire for not appointing a permanent OJJDP administrator. Part of the delay stems from new legislation that would eliminate Senate confirmation for the job of acting administrator (among other federal positions). That bill, S. 697, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlinig Act of 2011, passed the Senate but has yet to go before the House for a vote.
Photo from mainjustice.com