Shake-up Underway at Federal Office of Juvenile Justice

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(L-R) Robert Listenbee, Joe Torre, Melodee Hanes

Major changes in leadership, structure and funding are underway at the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, changes that are likely to impact the way the office extends assistance to the field.

For starters, the office will soon get its first permanent chief in more than four years. Robert Listenbee Jr., a widely-praised juvenile defense attorney from Philadelphia and the Obama administration’s pick for office administrator, will probably start work by early next month, several nationally connected juvenile justice leaders said.

By the time Listenbee takes over from acting Administrator Melodee Hanes, the office will already be operating under a new streamlined vision and a major reorganization of its staff, programs and grants.

The restructuring, which has been under development for months and is happening now, includes the creation of new office divisions focusing on policy areas like youth development, community development and juvenile justice improvement, Hanes told members of a national advisory committee this week.

But these improvements come at a time of mandatory federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which kicked in last week as a result of Congressional gridlock over the federal deficit. About $107 million could be slashed this year from her office’s already lean budget as part of $1.6 billion in reductions to the U.S. Department of Justice, Hanes told the committee.

“It’s a big amount with big consequences,” she said.

Hanes assured committee members, who represent state advisory groups across the country, her office’s primary goal was to mitigate the impact of budget reductions on its workforce and on states and tribal areas. Sequestration only affects funding for fiscal year 2013 and does not affect existing grants or cooperative agreements awarded in fiscal year 2012 or before, Hanes said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Hanes said. “As of now, we don’t plan to terminate programs.”

Reductions in federal funding in recent years probably precipitated the office’s decision to restructure as a way to improve efficiency, juvenile justice professionals said.

“I would speculate that there were two major catalysts for this – a practical reality for continually reduced capacity to integrate and coordinate functions and reduce any duplication of effort, and to create a broader and more effective climate of teamwork,” said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, head of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a network of state advisory groups.

After all, financial pain is not new to the OJJDP. Federal funds for programs administered by the office declined by 41 percent to $277 million from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2012, Janet Chiancone, the associate administrator for budget and planning, told the federal advisory committee at its October 2012 meeting.

The office will publicly announce its reorganized structure once it has moved all staff into their new positions, migrated programs and grants into the new divisions, and ironed out any wrinkles, a process that should be complete by the middle of March, Hanes said.

“It’s still a work in progress and we find that almost every week we have to make a tweak to the reorganization chart,” Hanes told the committee.

Veteran juvenile justice professionals around the country expressed optimism at the changes, while emphasizing they did not have details on the actual plan.

Hanes’ participatory approach to the entire reorganization process, such as asking office staff and state advisory groups to offer input and advice, boded well for how the agency made decisions and how the new structure would reflect perspectives from the field, Robinson said.

Dean Williams, who advises his home state of Alaska and the federal government on juvenile justice issues, agreed. “I think it’s a real signal that they want to focus their efforts on areas that have been most important to the field,” he said.

Hornberger said she looked forward to seeing the final organizational plan. “I think the field is eager to see the results of the many forms of input and has some high expectations for this reorganization, particularly in terms of coordination, connection and responsiveness to the states,” she said.

George Timberlake, a retired judge who serves on the federal advisory committee on juvenile justice, and a frequent contributor to JJIE, expressed similar hopes.

“Everyone I have met on staff at OJJDP is highly professional and well-qualified, and because of that, I think there’s great promise that reorganization and permanent leadership is going to produce good results,” Timberlake said.

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