As I watched Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce the termination of DACA, I was reminded how President Donald Trump had duped Democrats into actually supporting Sessions and arguing that he should not be removed as the head of the Justice Department. Sessions’ announcement meant the end of protections provided to nearly one million Dreamers under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
A few months before the DACA press conference, when Sessions erroneously claimed that children brought to the United States by their parents were taking jobs away from Americans, Trump publicly criticized Sessions and signaled that he might be one of several administration officials on the chopping block. But fearing that Sessions’ ouster might lead to the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, Democrats caved and called for the attorney general to keep his job. Just a few months earlier, in his confirmation hearings, these same Democrats were trying to stop Sessions from becoming the nation’s top cop while reading the words of Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, warning that Session was a racist.
There has been debate about whether Trump is crazy or crazy like a fox. Though clearly showing signs of mental instability at times, Trump seemed to outfox Democrats with this move. Democratic and Republican congressmen called on Trump to keep his attorney general in place, and the president, who usually shuns such pressure, either complied or enacted his ploy to deceive the Democrats. Either way, Sessions remains, more secure than ever.
Sessions leads the Department of Justice, which encompasses the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The OJJDP distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to states for prevention, diversion and rehabilitation programs, including those that aim to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. Yet his regressive policy agenda may dismantle the very reforms OJJDP has sought to achieve.
While the attorney general for Alabama, Sessions suggested that youth in the juvenile justice system be sent to “work camps” and argued for more funds to be spent on expanding youth incarceration. When he was on a youth violence subcommittee in the U.S. Senate, Sessions doubled down on his out-of-touch stance on juvenile justice, opposing prevention programs. In 2009, he also put forth an amendment to the reauthorization of juvenile justice funding to expand the number of children being charged and incarcerated as adults in the federal system.
Early on in Trump’s presidency, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would no longer pursue federal orders to reform police agencies that abuse their powers and have a pattern and practice of discrimination. Then while speaking to officers in New York, Trump encouraged police to violate the Constitution by intentionally roughing up suspects.
Sessions has also rescinded Obama administration policy aimed at reducing the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes. The Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged federal prosecutors to not go after long sentences for those charged with nonviolent drug offenses, a policy that has become a universally accepted, nonpartisan issue.
Sessions is instead looking to revive the war on drugs that led America to excessive levels of mass incarceration. After several decades of over-reliance on ineffective, harmful and excessively expensive incarceration, the United States has finally seen a significant reduction in youth detention rates and the beginning of a decline in the number of adults in prison.
Jeff Sessions would like to take us back to the dark ages, and Trump duped Democrats into supporting him.
David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. He is the former chief probation officer of Alameda County in California and the former deputy commission of probation in New York City.
The legislation is a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, a law that sets standards for the treatment of juveniles that states follow to qualify for federal funding.
The bill would update core protections in the law, give states new tools to prevent delinquency and gang involvement, and provide guidance on curbing racial and ethnic disparities in the system.
This “is about more than improving the juvenile justice system. It’s about helping vulnerable kids realize they have an opportunity to succeed in life and giving them the support they need to seize that opportunity,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, a lead sponsor of the bill.
“This act … is a major step in the right direction towards reforming our juvenile justice system,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California. “I am particularly grateful that the bill includes my community-based gang intervention bill, to help gang-involved youth.”
The swift passage of the House legislation means all eyes will be back on the Senate, where lawmakers have limited days left on the legislative calendar to act on the House bill or find a way forward for a Senate version of the bill (S 1169), which is very similar to the House version.
A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a lead sponsor in the Senate, said he is seeking input from lawmakers on the differences between the two pieces of legislation. Since the bills are so similar, Grassley is optimistic the House bill can pass in the Senate, she said.
The Senate reauthorization has wide bipartisan support but stalled earlier this year when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, objected to a provision that would end what’s known as the valid court order exception for status offenders.
The JJDPA prohibits the detention of minors for status offenses, behaviors such as truancy or running away that are only considered offenses when committed by minors, unless a judge issues a court order.
The House bill has won the support of juvenile justice reform advocates who have long sought a reauthorization of the bill, which hasn’t been updated since 2002.
“Premised on research-based understandings of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, H.R. 5963 reaffirms a national commitment to the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system; one that supports developmentally appropriate practices that treat as many youth as possible in their communities,” said the ACT4JJ Campaign, a coalition of youth advocates, in a letter voicing the organization’s support for the bill.
The advocates did draw attention to one of the more significant policy differences between the House and the Senate bills: the way each end the valid court exception. Both would phase out the exception over three years, but the House bill allows states to apply for one-year hardship extensions, which would be approved or denied by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“Though we prefer the Senate’s approach to the phase out, which does not include an annual hardship exception, the House bill is an improvement over current law that sends a clear message to states and will help keep greater numbers of youth from being unnecessarily detained,” the letter said.
“This bipartisan reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) supports evidence-based programs that can prevent youth from engaging in criminal activity or rehabilitate youth who are starting to offend. These proven programs provide a critical support for law enforcement, as well as an investment in those young people,” the group said in a letter to lawmakers.
Who advises the president and Congress about matters of juvenile justice policy? My guess is that “lobbyists” is the first answer that comes to mind and, of course, that answer is correct but incomplete. There is a legislatively created committee of citizens to render such advice; it is the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice —usually called FACJJ.
Why am I asking these questions? Because new members are being selected now and we need your help — by Aug. 12 — THIS FRIDAY!
Last October, I was elected chair of the FACJJ. I can tell you from personal experience that the members’ energy, wisdom and genuine concern mean that the group recommendations are supported by research, best practice and a breadth of experience in the juvenile justice field. OJJDP is the host agency for the FACJJ and is directly affected by the recommendations, but the reach is far greater than that.
The current list of pending juvenile justice-related bills in Congress has been influenced by the work of you, dear reader, because FACJJ members are selected from State Advisory Group — SAG — members.
I suggest that you go to the FACJJ website to examine past recommendations or to the OJJDP website under About OJJDP, then Councils and Committees.
Currently, our subcommittees are considering several topics. The Legislation group continues to monitor and support the re-authorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Members have been a source of information for sponsors in both the Senate and House. They also keep tabs on all juvenile justice-related federal bills and are now surveying state reform statutes to develop an understanding of where good work is being done as a future guide for their federal advice.
The Expungement and Confidentiality subcommittee has completed a recommendation supporting good expungement practices and is now studying the methods of disclosure of confidential juvenile information in the search for how to make confidentiality real.
Our Research and Publication group has recommended the end of juvenile sex offender registries and is now working on recommendations for effective treatments for this population as well as effective prevention approaches. The newest workgroup has just formed around LGBTQ issues and is deeply involved in considerations of policy, training and technical assistance, research and data with concentration on transgender issues.
Finally, a bylaws group will have recommendations for the September in-person meeting of the FACJJ to expand the membership and to streamline process in the operation of the committee. The entire committee will consider implementation issues for the recommendations.
There are a limited number of positions available and they are attached to a specific group of states, territories and tribal groups. If you are a State Advisory Group member, please consider applying. If you are not a member, please look at the names on your SAG’s website and talk to any member whom you consider to be a useful FACJJ member.
Please go to the OJJDP or FACJJ website and learn more about the scope of work and then DO IT NOW. Please.
Like most families, mine has been busy ending one financial year and beginning another. As soon as the Christmas decorations are removed, we begin collecting records for the coming tax season, reviewing last year’s expenditures and preparing for next year’s needs.
If you own a small business, you probably create a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet to reflect your current position. Wage earners sit around kitchen tables and make plans based upon past performance and future needs.
Governments go through a similar exercise, and more and more of them put their revenues and expenditures on websites for review by taxpayers. What is missing is a report of the outcomes of those expenditures.
What has this to do with the justice system? Because incarceration is such a large part of public budgets, there is growing attention to its high price tag and limited effectiveness. Many states and cities are trying to decrease costs by reducing jail and prison populations. Some speak of “reinvestment” of savings gained by closing facilities and eliminating staff.
Is justice a zero-sum game in government budgets? Must we look at past expenditures as a cap to future spending? Please don’t misunderstand — redirecting dollars spent on prisons to evidence-based alternatives is good policy, but the basic question should be directed toward outcomes for any dollar spent.
There are mountains of research pointing to better results for kids and families from alternatives to justice system involvement, and that realization by the public and government is driving significant reform. On the other hand, there are even more mountains of research about how best to prevent justice system involvement in the first place. That includes early childhood screening and services, nurse-family partnerships, evidence-based practices in child welfare interventions, adequate mental health services and substance abuse treatment, to name a few.
In Illinois, we are entering the seventh month without a budget. This does not mean that no taxpayer dollars are being spent. Court orders and partial deals between the governor and General Assembly have created exceptions for executive and legislative salaries, prison costs, state police payrolls and several other spending needs.
What is lost in this tug of war are those very services mentioned above that are most needed to keep citizens safe, communities healthy and the use of incarceration on the decline.
The federal government has reached a budget deal that has interrupted the habit of expenditures by continuing resolution and it even includes a small increase in OJJDP funding. Unfortunately, that deal was driven by the bipartisan desire to clear the public space for the presidential and legislative races. Federal government policymaking is likely to be extremely diminished before 2017.
What can be done? Maybe a little lesson from kitchen-table financial planning would be helpful: Count the number of children in the city, state or federal “family,” determine their needs for the coming year and decide what services will best meet those needs. Of course, the next step is to find the funds to pay for those services that will create the best outcomes for those needs.
In families, we know we cannot always easily pay for the needs of our children but we have to find a way — a second or third job, delaying some discretionary purchase, tightening our belts, making our financial decisions more effective. Spending the same amount of money in the same way just won’t work to meet the long-term needs of our families. In other words, reinvestment of funds saved from reduced incarceration will not meet the goals of public safety, better outcomes for kids and fiscal responsibility.
We should start by calculating how much needs to be spent to meet the needs of kids and families, to reduce the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system; and to deliver services that youth deep in the system need to succeed when they return to their homes. Then, our governments need to find a way to pay for it — just like families do at this time of year.
Because this is an election year, officeholders are making budget decisions at the same time they are running for re-election. They should be listening, and all of us should be telling them what is needed to make our communities safer and to help our youth lead productive lives.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The lived experience of young people and their families is crucial to creating good policy.
Toward that end, we empower alumni of our programs to courageously share their personal stories with local and national legislators.
Sloane provided insight for an overview of the JJDPA and the ways in which it diverts youth from juvenile justice system involvement, supports alternatives to incarceration, saves taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, promotes safer, stronger and healthier youth, families and communities.
“I was in trouble with the law and spent time locked up in a juvenile detention center before coming to Boys Town Washington D.C. at the age of 15. Boys Town was the program that helped me and so many others just like me turn our lives around, but I’m not any different from other kids who end up in the juvenile justice system. The difference is that someone didn’t just lock me up and throw away the key. Instead, I got help and support in my community, and I was able to make changes for the long term.
“I think all youth want to do something positive with their lives and are looking for consistency and structure — whether we can express it effectively or not. At the hearing, they asked me what advice I would give to help other young people avoid the juvenile justice system, and it was a hard question to answer. It’s not as simple as telling someone to avoid negative peers or stay away from drugs. For me, hands-on programs with tangible outcomes brought out my best self. When I was given responsibility, it created a sense of fulfillment and obligation to do better and to be more.
“Youth need skills to change their behavior, and they shouldn’t have to get locked up before they are eligible for help. That’s what the JJDPA supports, and that’s why I support the law.
“I feel like if I can give back, I should. I hope sharing my story helped make the issue real for the congressmen who heard it. I hope others speak out, too. If anyone wants to know what works, talking and listening to individual young people is the key.”
Sloane’s testimony affected committee members. Many shared their own backgrounds working with and advocating for youth as principals, school board members, state legislators and lawyers before they became members of Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike stressed the importance of effective programs that address the root causes of delinquency and prioritize family involvement in prevention and rehabilitation.
Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., expressed appreciation for the voice of a directly affected youth on the hearing panel, stating, “Mr. Baxter, thank you for the example you’re setting. By sharing your story with us today, you’re helping make a difference in the lives of others.”
The power of youth voice should not be underestimated. With the help of voices from around the country, Congress may finally be compelled to reauthorize this crucial piece of legislation.
Sloane Baxter, 22, is a volunteer youth advocate from Washington. Lisette Burton is the director of national advocacy for Boys Town, where she advocates for effective federal and state policies related to child welfare, juvenile justice, education and health. Boys Town is a member of the Act4JJ Coalition, a national group of juvenile justice, child welfare and youth development organizations advocating for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and increased federal funding for juvenile justice programs and services.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.
“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.
“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”
As JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.
Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.
“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.
“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”
He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.
Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.
“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”
Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.
“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.
“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE. “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.
“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities. Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”
The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.
In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.
In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.
And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP administrator, co-chaired the task force.
In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For more than 25 years, the U.S. Department of Justice has given hundreds of millions in grants to states to reduce the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system, yet youth of color still appear in disproportionate numbers in many areas of the system.
According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention analyzed by JJIE, black youth between the ages of 10 and 17 made up 17 percent of all children in that age group in 2010, but comprised 31 percent of all juvenile arrests, 40 percent of detentions, 34 percent of adjudications (guilty determinations), and 45 percent of cases transferred to adult criminal court.
The percentage of black arrests and adjudications has actually increased in the last 20 years. In 1990, black youth were 15 percent of the entire youth population, but they made up 27 percent of juvenile arrests, 33 percent of adjudications and 40 percent of detentions. The only area that saw improvement by 2010 was in transfers to adult court, where black youth comprised 49 percent of transfers in 1990.
The OJJDP also uses another measurement to determine the level of disproportionate contact for youth of color, known as the Relative Rate Index or RRI, which looks at white youth contact at several points in the system and compares that to minority contact. White contact is assigned the number 1 and anything above 1 would be considered disproportionate or overrepresented. A 1 to 1 ratio would indicate that white and minority youth are appearing at equal rates in the system.
RRI data from OJJDP from 1990-2010 shows that minority youth are still overrepresented in many areas. However, detentions did fall from 1.6 in 1990 to 1.4 in 2010, and waivers fell from 1.7 to 1.4. Adjudications of black youth remained the same at 0.9, but arrests increased from 2 in 1990 to 2.1 in 2010, indicating that arrests of black youth are still occurring at twice the rate of white youth arrests.
These numbers may be disheartening to many who work to reduce the disproportionate number of minority youth in the juvenile justice system, especially given that OJJDP has awarded hundreds of millions to states since 1988, when Congress mandated recipients of formula grants have plans to address disproportionate minority contact, also known as DMC. The law was later amended in 2002 to address the disproportionate number of minority youth who come into any contact with the juvenile justice system and are not just in confinement.
It's impossible to know the exact amount of government funds that have gone toward reducing DMC since 1988 because addressing minority contact is only one of four criteria that states must comply with when vying for formula grants. What's more, once states receive the grant, it's up to them to determine how much is spent on DMC reduction efforts.
To get a general sense of how much money is involved, consider that OJJDP has given more than $600 million in formula grants and other grants that have DMC components from 2007-2013 alone. The agency also spends time assisting states in training, technical assistance and evaluations.
Although OJJDP gives "strong recommendations" to states on how they should spend their formula grants, the amount devoted to DMC reduction efforts varies by state, said Andrea Coleman, OJJDP's DMC coordinator. Some states allocate 80 percent, while others will set aside 20 percent or 15 percent, she added.
The agency requires those seeking formula funds to follow their DMC Reduction Model, which begins with identifying the extent of DMC using the RRI formula, assessing what's contributing to DMC and implementing plans to reduce DMC through the use of diversion, alternatives to confinement, training or procedural changes. The final phases of the model include evaluating how effective their actions have been, monitoring to see if data reflects changes to DMC and making adjustments based on the data.
This model is often far too general, said James Bell, the founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity in the juvenile justice system.
"The statute that they're working with says that the OJJDP shall address DMC," Bell said. "OJJDP has gotten much better over time, but when we first started, literally ‘address’ could be you and I go together to a salad bar and talk about it. If I don't want to do anything, what I'll do is address it by giving 10 grand to a professor at a local college to come up with a study, and then put on a conference next year, or maybe an MLK breakfast."
Bell said what's lacking is direction from OJJDP to look at DMC at a local level, in counties, cities, police departments and schools. The agency has also been overly focused on getting communities to learn and calculate the RRI in their community, which Bell said doesn't provide the full picture of inequality.
"You have to analyze crimes in specific communities. Sometimes the problem is not racism or poverty. Sometimes the reason for DMC is they've set up a system that couldn't help anyone," Bell said. "It could be something as simple as when that jurisdiction holds court, whether it’s on a morning calendar or an afternoon calendar."
One of the failings of the federal grant process to reduce DMC is that it's not clear where the money has been spent on a local level, added Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas in Dallas who has researched DMC. Success stories are also isolated, and solutions are hard to extrapolate because what may work in Santa Cruz may not work in Philadelphia or Orlando, he added.
"Just because you throw money at a problem, doesn't mean it will solve the problem," Piquero said. "Dollars have to be spent wisely. We need to figure out why these statistics emerge the way they do and spend careful attention on why these kids offend at different rates or for different reasons and how the systems deal with them."
Working with Police
The OJJDP data over the last 20 years clearly shows arrests have the largest level of minority overrepresentation, however OJJDP formula grants don't affect police departments because they are funded through other sources that don't have DMC components. A local police department doesn't have as much incentive to work on DMC reduction efforts as other entities that get OJJDP formula grants, experts say.
It's often difficult for states to build relationships and work with police departments to gain enough trust to allow them to go in and study the issue, said Michael J. Leiber, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and the former chair of Iowa’s DMC Committee. That's why many of the studies of the DMC mandate have not included police and focus instead on the courts, he added.
"It's up to the police to say I'll let you in," Leiber said. "I'm not defending the police, but they are jumped on all the time for police brutality and racial profiling. They're sensitive about people coming in to study them and feel they would be attacked. For a researcher to get in is very difficult."
OJJDP has recognized that there is a need to focus on the front part of the system, DMC Coordinator Coleman said. It was only until 2002, when the law was broadened to disproportionate minority contact, that OJJDP was able to legally address arrests, she added. Prior to that their efforts were focused on correctional facilities.
Coleman cites an example in Connecticut where the state has looked at DMC arrests since 2005 and developed a training curriculum for patrol officers. Police departments who sent officers to get certified in the training would then be eligible to apply for OJJDP formula grants for police and youth community service projects. The state has seen a 40 percent reduction in black youth arrests since 2006, she said.
"It's only been in probably the last three years that states have really started to concentrate looking at disproportionality in arrests," Coleman said. "I think over the next several years, we'll start to see those numbers come down at the front part of the system."
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.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”
Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”
More than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.
This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.
Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.
There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.
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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.
“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”
At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.
But that room soon ran out of seats too.
OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”
The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.
“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.
Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”
Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”
Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.
“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”
Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.
The OJJDP requires states participating in its Part B Formula Grants program to collect information about the effectiveness of programs and initiatives intended to address the overrepresentation of minority young people in state juvenile justice systems. Using a five-phase DMC reduction model, the OJJDP advises states to calculate disproportionality, assess “mechanisms” contributing to DMC and develop intervention, evaluation and monitoring programs to deter delinquency and initiate systematic improvements.
According to 2011 data, 41 states now have DMC subcommittees under State Advisory Groups, while 37 have either part-time or state-level personnel designated as DMC coordinators. Twenty-nine states have collected DMC data at nine contact points within their juvenile justice systems, while an additional 13 have collected DMC data from at least six contact points. Thirty-four states, the updated data indicates, have invested in “targeted local DMC reduction sites.”
Regarding intervention practices, 34 states have implemented systems improvement and delinquency prevention strategies, while 30 have either funded or received funding and/or technical assistance to implement DMC reduction programs patterned after nationally recognized models. In 2011, 10 states had implemented DMC reduction programs specifically targeting American Indian and Alaska Native young people.
Although 39 states have released timelines for monitoring relative rate indexes (RRI), described by the OJJDP as “the rate of activity involving minority youth divided by the rate of activity involving majority youth,” data indicates that only four states -- California, Connecticut, Kentucky and Tennessee -- “have conducted at least one evaluation of delinquency prevention and/or systems improvement strategies statewide or in their local DMC reduction site,” according to the fact sheet.