WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has widened his inquiry into whistleblowers’ claims of fraud and mismanagement in the awarding of grants from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
The federal juvenile justice grants went to states and territories that allegedly incarcerated foster children, runaway youth and other vulnerable juveniles in violation of federal law.
In addition to the states and territories named in the inquiry so far, Grassley’s office said in a news release, “The alleged mismanagement may extend to many more states and could date as far back as 1986.”
“Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention grants were designed to protect at-risk youth,” said Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the news release.
“Any failure to administer this program is a failure to those that it was intended to serve. Unfortunately, the alarmingly high prevalence of alleged failures and the department’s own responses to those allegations suggest systemic mismanagement that must be corrected. These kids and young adults deserve and depend on accountability from government.”
In a seven-page letter Friday to Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, Grassley outlined allegations by whistleblowers that oversight failures may have led to unlawful OJJDP grants to Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
In a January letter, Grassley demanded that Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, respond to whistleblowers’ claims that OJJDP had knowingly violated federal law by giving millions of dollars in grants to Wisconsin and four other states or territories that incarcerated runaway youth, foster children and other “vulnerable minors” in violation of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The four were not named.
The law contains four “core requirements” states and territories must comply with to earn OJJDP grant money: deinstitutionalization of status offenders, those who commit acts that are offenses only because of their status as juveniles, such as skipping school; addressing disproportionate minority contact (DMC) with the juvenile justice system through detailed plans aimed at reducing it; removal of juveniles from adult jails within prescribed time limits; and separation of juveniles from adult inmates when the juveniles are in adult facilities.
The latest letter said whistleblowers also had alleged that two states, Illinois and Rhode Island, had improperly received full grant funding despite failing to comply with the DMC requirement.
Starr Stepp, a Justice Department spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Grassley plans to offer reforms to the OJJDP grant program in the JJDPA reauthorization bill in response to the whistleblowers’ allegations, Tuesday’s news release said .
Requirements and claims
Under the JJDPA, Grassley’s letter noted, OJJDP is required to reduce a state’s JJDPA grant funding for a given year by 20 percent for each core requirement violated in the previous fiscal year. The letter also pointed out a state is to receive no JJDPA funds for the year following a violation unless it meets one of two criteria, which include showing “subsequent, substantial compliance with the requirement(s) it was violating.”
An OJJDP employee, who had previously worked as the agency’s JJDPA liaison for Virginia, admitted he knowingly submitted fraudulent data on behalf of the state in its annual applications for JJDPA grants, Grassley said. It “was widely believed among the states that OJJDP does not verify data reported by the states,” Grassley said in his letter.
A whistleblower had claimed that in 2005 Virginia reported to OJJDP it had only seven lock-ups in the entire state, when there may be 70 in Northern Virginia alone, the letter said. According to the OJJDP website, the state has received full JJDPA funding every year since 2006.
“Such reports seem to underscore whistleblowers’ core allegation that OJJDP knowingly allows states to receive JJDPA funds to which they are not entitled, and that this lack of compliance monitoring is common knowledge among the states,” Grassley wrote in the latest letter.
The senator’s letter also contained these allegations:
- Tennessee violated the core requirement that forbids states to incarcerate status offenders after adjudication. In Knox County, Tenn., alone, status offenders have been incarcerated hundreds of times, according to a law school professor who operates a clinic that represents status offenders in Knox County courts. The professor wrote to OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee Jr. about these concerns on Nov. 6, 2013, but “OJJDP was unwilling to receive documentation of these alleged violations,” Grassley wrote.
- Idaho reported in 2009 that none of its lockups held any juveniles, contradicting information from the Boise and Jerome police departments. An OJJDP compliance monitor also reported that not all 85 lockups could have reported data to the state on the number of juveniles held. A revised compliance monitoring report revealed violations of the core requirements on status offenders, removal of juveniles from adult facilities and separation of juveniles from adults when they are held in adult facilities. Nonetheless, Idaho has received full JJDPA grant funding every year since 2006, except for fiscal year 2012. That year, the state’s funding was reduced by 20 percent for status offender violations.
- A whistleblower alleged Illinois has not complied with the DMC requirement since 2008 even though it has received full JJDPA grant funding since 2006. The whistleblower found a “serious deficiency” in Illinois DMC programs and determined funding should be reduced as a result. The Office of General Counsel in DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs agreed, but Listenbee overruled both determinations “without providing a legitimate justification,” Grassley wrote. The whistleblower also alleged Listenbee had recently instructed OJJDP staff to issue a “blanket pass for all states regarding the DMC requirement” by notifying them they will not be found out of compliance with the requirement. OJJDP said in an Oct. 28, 2014, letter that it had stopped finding DMC noncompliance in 2013 and would continue to do so until a new DMC compliance tool was developed, Grassley wrote.
- In Rhode Island, whistleblowers alleged during one year that all the state had to do was arrange for a single meeting with a local NAACP chapter to demonstrate DMC compliance, Grassley wrote. His letter did not specify the year but said the single meeting “would seem to fall short of the statutory requirement that a state seeking to satisfy the DMC requirement must submit a detailed plan outlining programs, projects, and activities aimed at ‘reducing the disproportionate number of juvenile members of minority groups, who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.’”
- Each year since 2006, Puerto Rico has not complied with core requirements on removal of juveniles from adult jails and lockups and separation of juveniles from adult offenders in adult facilities. Puerto Rico’s JJDPA funding had been reduced for these violations each year. But partial funding should have been allowed only if the territory had shown “subsequent, substantial compliance with the non-compliant requirements” or agreed to spend 50 percent of the partial funds to achieve compliance. “Whistleblowers allege that OJJDP employees who raised these issues internally were removed from duty or prompted to look the other way,” Grassley said in his letter. He noted Puerto Rico’s funds had been frozen in 2013 but later unfrozen — a decision allegedly made in part to cover the salary of a JJDPA liaison in Puerto Rico who is married to an OJJDP employee.