Advocates Cheer Listenbee as New Federal Head of Juvenile Justice

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Photo by D. T. Kindler.

Juvenile justice advocates hailed the Obama administration’s announcement Friday that Philadelphia defense attorney Robert Listenbee Jr., a long-time champion of limiting the detention and incarceration of juveniles and keeping them out of adult facilities, will be the next permanent administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Listenbee is the head of the Juvenile Unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a member of the federal advisory council on juvenile justice, and a co-chair of a national blue-ribbon taskforce that recently explored the extent of American children’s exposure to violence. In 2011, the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative honored Listenbee with a Champion for Change award for his leadership in reforming the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania. Listenbee has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Several juvenile justice professionals, including those who have worked with Listenbee at the local, state and national level, expressed great pleasure at his selection.

“He’s a person who’s worked very, very well with every stakeholder in the system for many, many years: with police, with prosecutors, with judges, with public and private officials,” said Robert Schwartz, the executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, who has worked with Listenbee for more than 20 years. “He’s smart, and he’s savvy politically, and he cares deeply about improving and maintaining good systems for kids.”

Listenbee will also be the first defense attorney and the first African-American to lead the federal office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that in a system like the juvenile justice system that has a history of racial and ethnic disparities, that having somebody who has been a defense attorney and is African American will bring a different perspective to the job,” Schwartz said, describing Listenbee’s collaboration with other Pennsylvania officials to create forums for dialogue and understanding between police and young people, especially minority youth.

“He’s been deeply, deeply involved in the efforts to reduce disproportionate minority contact and to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system,” Schwartz said.

Liz Ryan, president of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit devoted to keeping juveniles out of adult criminal systems across the country, said that while she hadn’t worked with Listenbee directly, she had observed the thoughtful way he gathered information from lots of different sources during his tenure as co-chair of the national taskforce on children and violence, such as by holding public listening sessions around the country. That boded well for how he was likely to reach out to juvenile justice workers in the field and listen to their needs, she said.

“Bob Listenbee would bring leadership, stature and expertise to the job,” Ryan said, describing the OJJDP’s administrator’s role as crucial to ensuring the reauthorization and funding of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act, as well as helping states stop the overuse of detention and incarceration for juveniles, lower racial and ethnic disproportionality in detention, and stop the placement of juveniles in adult facilities.

Patricia Puritz, the director of the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C., agreed. “I think Bob will be an excellent administrator and he brings a deep wealth of juvenile justice experience to the office,” Puritz said.

The White House made a “superb pick,” said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national alliance of state advisors on juvenile justice. “Administrator Listenbee is visionary, collaborative, and impactful in juvenile justice policy and practice reform -- he's the right person at a critical time.”

The federal office of juvenile justice has not had a permanent chief since President Obama took office in 2008, the first time in the office’s nearly four-decade history that the seat has lain vacant for so long. Melodee Hanes became acting administrator of the office in January 2012, after Jeff Slowikowski fulfilled that role for the first three years of the Obama administration.

A recent rule change by Congress eliminated the need for a nominee for the administrator’s position to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making the position a presidential appointment.

The White House press statement on Friday mentioned the president’s “intent to appoint” Listenbee, and said Listenbee had agreed to join the administration. It did not say when Listenbee would take office.

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