WASHINGTON — Juvenile justice reform advocates have met President Donald Trump’s appointment for a critical Department of Justice position with sighs of relief.
Caren Harp does not need Senate confirmation before she can be sworn in to head up the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Early reactions from reform advocates — including those who don’t share her conservative politics — is that she is someone with whom business can be done.
“I know that she’s well-versed in juvenile justice’s best practices and that she understands the role of the juvenile court,” said Steven Teske, chief judge of the juvenile court in Clayton County, Georgia, and national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “She knows that it’s not good for juveniles to go deeper into the system where it can be avoided.”
Teske was one of a few advocates willing to discuss Harp’s nomination publicly, but his comments echoed those of a chorus of reformers who agreed to speak only off the record.
The coalition "will commit to her all the support we can and we look forward to working with her,” Teske said.
In this, Harp seems to benefit from lowered expectations. Trump’s first year in office has been stormy, and reform advocates, eyeing the OJJDP opening, feared the worst.
“I'm pleased and surprised by the appointment because Ms. Harp actually seems qualified for the position,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York. “I don't know her, but she's worked in the courts and she likely appreciates the role of outside experts and technical assistance providers … and she at least has a law degree.”
A former public defender and prosecutor in her native Arkansas, Harp served as director of the National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center at the American Prosecutors Research Institute. She was also chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in New York City’s Family Court. She currently sits on the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Standards Task Force, and the National Steering Committee for the Vision 21 Project of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
She also has conservative bona fides. For the past six years, she has taught law at Liberty University, whose founder, Jerry Falwell, also founded the Moral Majority. Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., who currently runs the university, is one of Trump’s most devout evangelical allies. But Liberty itself has been subject to some of the same fissures that the Trump administration has brought on: Alumni and current students have been critical of Falwell’s closeness to the president, and data continues to show that younger evangelicals, particularly, are rethinking their leaders’ virulent anti-gay mission.
If Harp has strong opinions on these larger questions, she has kept them mostly to herself — she doesn’t have a lengthy list of publications and her public comments are sparse. (Through a Department of Justice spokeswoman, she declined comment for this story.)
In 2004, she co-authored a monograph arguing for the integration of a community prosecution model into juvenile justice systems. She and her co-authors had words of praise for the “broken windows” model of law enforcement, as well as demonstration cases from Suffolk and Kings County, New York. Kings County was singled out for its Youth and Congregations in Partnership program “in which a coalition of churches ‘adopt’ juvenile offenders for mentoring.”
This past May, Harp took to the pages of this publication to urge her fellow practitioners against rushing headlong into emerging neuroscience on the developing adolescent brain. While the “renewed focus on adolescent development in juvenile justice is welcome and overdue,” the jury, so to speak, was still out, Harp argued.
“Unfortunately, much of the brain science that is influencing the justice system hasn’t been offered into evidence in a courtroom. It hasn’t been subjected to rigorous challenge, or its limits defined or tested,” she said.
Reading words like that, Teske said, he’s convinced that Harp is open-minded enough to give advocates a fair hearing.
“I believe Ms. Harp will listen because Ms. Harp is intelligent, she is experienced and she is well informed,” he said.
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the OJJDP administrator is appointed, not nominated, and does not need Senate confirmation.