Last week, Melody Hanes assumed the mantle of acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a temporary position held for three years by her predecesor. She may be there just as long. The Obama administration appears in no hurry to permanently fill the position and controversial legislation to remove Senate approval for the OJJDP administrator passed the Senate but is stalled in the House.
While Congress debates the issue, Hanes, formerly the Deputy Administrator for Policy at OJJDP, faces an uphill battle as acting administrator of an agency that has had its budget slashed nearly $150 million by Congress in recent years. But former colleagues say Hanes, a one-time prosecutor and law professor, is uniquely qualified to make the most of a job hamstrung by its lack of permanence.
In the courtroom, Hanes was a fair but tough prosecutor, says Jerry Foxhoven, an attorney who both worked with Hanes and faced her in court when she was deputy county attorney in Polk County, Iowa.
“She was tenacious, but not in a bad way,” he said. “She was reasonable, but she certainly wasn’t afraid to go to court and she wasn’t afraid to fight you.”
Hanes was part of the major offense bureau in Polk County where she handled major felony cases, including child abuse and child molestation.
“She was doing pretty significant cases,” Foxhoven said. “Pretty important stuff.”
According to John Sarcone, the Polk County Attorney and Hanes’ former boss, Hanes was passionate about helping kids.
“She did an excellent job for us,” he said. “She cared about the kids. She was a good litigator and advocate.”
In Sarcone’s opinion, Hanes’ ability to help kids is without question. But he hopes she can make progress on other issues as well.
“I do hope there is some role to play for her to help state and local prosecutors get the funding and the help they need,” he said. “I’m hoping she can get the ear of the [U.S.] attorney general. Mel is good at that.”
Before joining OJJDP, Hanes was an adjunct professor teaching child abuse law at her alma mater, Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, where Foxhoven is now an assistant professor and executive director of the Neal and Bea Smith Legal Clinic. He says Hanes was well-liked by faculty and students.
“She’s very personable,” Foxhoven said. “At Drake, she was very professional, open and friendly. She was well-regarded.”
Still, experts fear those qualities may not be enough.
“A permanent administrator has more power and clout,” said Marion Mattingly, Washington editor of the Juvenile Justice Update. “It makes a huge difference.”
Mattingly worries that OJJDP’s budget cuts and lack of permanent leadership signal the beginning of the end for the federal agency that promotes best practices in the states’ juvenile justice systems.
“The program has not been reauthorized for years,” Mattingly said. “There are those who think it could be dead.”
She continued, “I’ve been involved for a long time and I am concerned. There are those who think Melodee [Hanes] was appointed to see to it that the program dies.”
But Mattingly dismisses those rumors.
“I don’t think she would that,” she said. “But it is going to be tough.”
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