Long-Time Reformer to Head Federal Juvenile Justice Office: Report

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OJJDP Administrator Robert Listenbee

Robert Listenbee Jr., a long-time champion of reforms in the juvenile justice system, including limiting the detention and incarceration of juveniles, is likely to be the next permanent administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, according to a report in the Chronicle of Social Change.

The federal office on juvenile justice has not had a permanent chief since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, 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 the administrator to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and so an appointment by the White House is all that Listenbee would need to officially take over.

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 found that two out of three American children are exposed to trauma from violence during their childhood. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

During a Dec. 12 announcement of the taskforce’s findings, Listenbee stressed the trauma that kids in the juvenile justice system have already experienced through their exposure to guns and called for making trauma-informed screening the standard of care at all juvenile facilities.

During the same speech, Listenbee emphasized the need for prosecuting children within the juvenile system, and for training staff at adult facilities on how to treat children appropriately. Large numbers of children were committing suicide, being sexually abused or raped in these communities, he said, and were frequently put in solitary confinement because that was the only way to keep them safe. Putting children in solitary confinement did a lot of harm, he said.

Listenbee did not return a voicemail or an email at his work address requesting confirmation of an impending federal appointment.

An OJJDP spokesperson, Starr Stepp, would not provide any additional information beyond saying, “As soon as an administrator is appointed, an announcement will be made.”

That announcement could come the week of Feb. 11, according to Nancy Gannon Hornberger, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national alliance of state advisors on juvenile justice. That’s when the OJJDP had indicated it would announce some major organizational changes, she said. Hornberger said she did not have confirmation of Listenbee’s selection but said that she would be “very pleased” if it were true.

“He meets all the criteria that we feel are essential for a leader of the OJJDP. He meets every single one that we were looking for. That’s very exceptional,” Hornberger said. “It would be a pleasure to work with him and we are very much looking forward to it.”

Liz Ryan, the founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit devoted to keeping juveniles out of the adult criminal system, also expressed her approval. “Bob Listenbee would bring leadership, stature and expertise to the job,” she said.

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