Exclusive Interview with Robert Listenbee, Incoming Head of Federal Office of Juvenile Justice

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Robert Stolarik / JJIE

Robert Listenbee

JJIE.org spoke on the phone Monday with defense attorney Robert Listenbee Jr., who was recently picked by President Barack Obama to lead the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. The office has not had a permanent administrator for four years. Listenbee, who has not yet received a formal federal appointment, continues to head the juvenile unit at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia in the meantime.

Listenbee spoke about the insights he brings to the national stage based upon his experiences with the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, and how his time as a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, and his stint as a secondary school teacher in Kenya as a young Harvard student sparked his passion for working with young people. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

JJIE: When will the appointment happen? Have they given you a timeline?

Listenbee: There’s no timeline. Not yet.

JJIE: Why did you want the job?

Listenbee: I’ve had the benefit in engaging in extensive reform efforts in the state of Pennsylvania, first in my office, the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, where we completely revamped the juvenile unit to address the unique needs of children. After that, I spent a lot of time working with a large number of different organizations in the state, but perhaps the most significant was working for the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which tackled the problem of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania.

There we had over 4,000 children who were directly impacted by a judge and a judicial system that ignored the constitutional rights of children, that placed children without benefit to counsel, that held children to waive counsel without proper colloquies, that addressed issues of children being in court without lawyers by not appointing lawyers.

And kids were sent away, they were hurt, they were sent away without just cause. That kind of thing really was of deep concern to me, and I worked with a very outstanding group of professionals here in this state who reformed the system in Luzerne County and established some parameters for reforming the entire juvenile justice system here in Pennsylvania. That, more than anything else, ignited my deep passion for working on the national level.

And there were a lot of reforms that came out of the Interbranch Commission that have been implemented as direct policy, either as laws or as new rules promulgated by the Supreme Court’s juvenile justice committee, so I’m very excited about all that.

I would say in addition, I’ve worked with the National Juvenile Defenders Center, where we’ve looked to see the extent to which In re Gault [Editor’s note: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that juveniles have the same rights to due process as adults] has been implemented across the United States. Even though Gault came into effect in 1967, the right to counsel is still not a right that’s widely recognized throughout the United States.

You go to countless jurisdictions where you do not find children having lawyers to represent them at all kinds of proceedings, or children are represented through the dispositional stage but once they go into placement there are no lawyers to represent them. Many of them languish in placement for extended periods of time, often without just cause. And that’s of deep concern to me.

In addition, we’ve done a lot of work trying to reduce the number of children who are going into placement disproportionately because of their race. We’ve looked at issues concerning disproportionate minority contact extensively here in Pennsylvania, and we’ve been able to develop collaborations between law enforcement and prosecutors to reduce disproportionate minority contact in our jurisdiction.

We developed training programs for law enforcement that have helped us really understand law enforcement better, and helped young people understand law enforcement better, and certainly helped law enforcement understand young people a lot better.

Those are the things that have really been of great interest to me, I’ve worked on them a long time, and they inspire me to want to do some of the same kinds of things at the national level.

JJIE: Do you think your experience as a black man brings something to the job?

Listenbee: Well… I certainly believe so. I’ve been in situations where I’ve encountered difficulties with law enforcement very early in my life in terms of just being apprehensive driving around in locations where the idea that a law enforcement officer could stop you without due process of law, without just cause, without probable cause. And I’ve worked with an awful lot of African American youth who feel they are unfairly treated by law enforcement. That’s probably more the direct impact.

And so when I represent them, I want to make sure they get high-quality representation, and when my staff members here at the Defenders Association represent them, I want to make sure they get excellent, outstanding representation, and so to that extent, yes, it has impacted me.

JJIE: Do you think it makes a difference to the kids who are in the system to have somebody head the federal office of juvenile justice who looks like the great majority of the kids in the system? Do you think that has any kind of symbolic value as well?

Listenbee: Well, I suspect it probably does, in the same way that having an African American president has tremendous symbolic value.

However, the most important thing that kids really want when they come to court, is they want to be treated fairly. They want to have quality representation, and they want to make sure they are not being treated any differently than any other children that come into the system.

Also, parents and guardians of children who come into our system really want someone to communicate with them and talk about issues and concerns that they have about their children going into the juvenile justice system. And to that extent I think it really does matter that the person who is involved with OJJDP has some background and experience really understanding the plight of children.

That’s not to say that being a defense attorney’s a requirement, or being an African American is a requirement, but whoever does the job should have deep compassion and concern for the kids who are in the system. I certainly bring a lot of that, and I’ve worked with a lot of people, including prosecutors and law enforcement included, who have those same passions and concerns. So I’m motivated by their activities, I’ve worked with an awful lot of them over the years, and I know they want the system to reflect that particular value as well.

JJIE: What are some of the successes under the OJJDP in the last 10 years, and some areas where you think they haven’t done as well?

Listenbee: That I really won’t comment on at this time. When I’ve had a chance to get situated, I’ll be more than willing to answer any questions you have. It’s just not for me to do at this juncture because I’m not in a position to make the best judgment.

JJIE: I figured you’d say that but I thought I’d ask anyway. Since we’re on the subject, what would be your top priorities as head of the OJJDP?

Listenbee: (Laughs) Again, I’ll be more than willing to talk to you about that once I’ve had a chance to go to orientation, talk to my immediate supervisors, including Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, and make sure I understand what the priorities of the attorney general are and the president. They’re the ones who have appointed me, and I want to make sure that I maintain fidelity to their priorities as well.

I certainly have an awful lot that I think is important based on my many years in juvenile justice, and I certainly will be seeking to share that and agree on a set of priorities.

JJIE: Can you comment on what you see as the role of the OJJDP?

Listenbee: The OJJDP’s role is set by statute. It has certain core responsibilities, and certainly I intend to focus on those, which include of course conducting research to make sure we understand what works in our system and what doesn’t work, and discarding those things that do not work. Disproportionate minority contact, reducing that across the nation, is one of the core responsibilities.

It also has a mission to understand what the best practices are in the nation and to share those with people all across the nation who are practitioners. There’s a very large juvenile justice community that is woven together fairly extensively, and that community is yearning for a clear direction at this point about where juvenile justice practice should be heading. And certainly I’ll be working with the professionals at the OJJDP and colleagues in the field throughout the nation to make sure we give a clear direction to where we want to go.

I’d like to point out one other thing that’s not really well understood that I really want to emphasize.

A lot of issues with juvenile delinquency occur in rural areas and in tribal areas. And frequently people are not aware of this, and certainly the people at OJJDP are aware of it. We want to make sure we do whatever we can to address the issues and concerns of children in those areas as well.

JJIE: As co-chair of the national taskforce on children’s exposure to violence, you held listening sessions around the country. What significant role can rank-and-file workers in the juvenile justice field play in drafting federal policy?

Listenbee: I certainly would follow up on some of the techniques we used to with the children’s exposure to violence taskforce. We had listening sessions because we had a limited amount of time and we wanted to gather as much information as we could. We went to places where we knew there were issues and concerns, such as military bases and rural areas in Alaska, that kind of thing, so that we could make sure that we had at least some basic ideas about what the challenges were.

As I move into my position, I certainly would be open to listening to professionals throughout the entire field and throughout the nation to find out what the issues and challenges are that they see. I really want to know what they are and I want to have the average people involved and also the experts in the field involved.

So I’m going to be reaching out, and one of the reasons I reached out to you was because I want to make it clear that there is a place for youth, and youth engagement, and a place for youth and family engagement, in addressing the issues and concerns that we have.

I’ve been at the bar of the court too many times with parents who came in and had no idea of what was happening with their children. With children who were at the bar of the court and had no idea of what was happening to them.

So I think we have to do a better job across the board in explaining to children and families what’s going on in our juvenile justice system and why a particular type of treatment or placement is going to best address their needs.

Often we send children away to places far from their families and we do not explain to the families or their children why they’re being sent there. And oftentimes we do not match the specific needs that children have with the kinds of places that we’re sending them.

As a direct result of that, the children come back, they have many of the same problems they had when they left, and they get re-placed later on because they still haven’t addressed the issues and concerns that they have.

So I want to make sure that people understand that I’m going to be there listening, trying to understand what’s going on, at the level where the system impacts children and their families, and not just at the research level, and not just at the summit level, because I think we have an awful lot to learn from our families and our kids.

JJIE: Is there any child in particular whose story stands out for you or have motivated you to keep doing what you’re doing?

Listenbee: There are an awful lot of kids who have influenced me. You know — an awful lot.

We had a child who was in placement here — who was killed while he was in placement. That had a pretty big impact on me.
We don’t send kids to placements so they can be put in restraints unnecessarily, and end up with bruises on their head, bounced on the floor, (with) the kinds of restraints that are dangerous and not permitted by law — and dead. So that young man’s death – Walter Brown was his name — was pretty impactful.

We began here in Pennsylvania to reduce the number of restraints in placement. And working closely to ensure that our attorneys who visit children while they’re in placement bring back reports on their well-being. We don’t interfere with placement programs per se but we do make sure that the kids are safe.

That’s certainly has had a tremendous impact on me. I’ve had other clients die in placement as well, and it really does make you feel like – maybe we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do in the system, if kids who are in placement and they’re not a threat to anybody, they’re not doing harm to anybody but they’re being restrained because of inappropriate behavior, that they’re being harmed, and I don’t think that’s necessary.

I think a lot of laws have been passed to help with this kind of a problem, but that’s certainly something that really deeply concerns me and all the members of my staff. We believe the system is supposed to help kids and not hurt them. So we really do get actively engaged in addressing those issues and concerns.

JJIE: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important for our readers to know?

Listenbee: The only other thing I would mention is that I was a house parent for four years. And I lived with gifted and talented children while working with children in the delinquency system…So I got a real chance – a really good opportunity to learn a lot about what young people think and how they act and what their priorities and concerns are on a daily basis.

And I guess the one thing I would add is that I honestly believe that a juvenile justice system should be seeking to provide the kinds of services to children that they would want to provide to their own children.

That our standards really should be, “Is this good enough for my kid? Is this the kind of program I would want for my child if my child had difficulties and needed to be in the juvenile justice system? Do I have the kind of high aspirations for these children – not just that they shouldn’t get re-arrested – but that they should have hopes and dreams, that will give them productive lives and have families and kids too?”

That’s really what I think our system ought to be doing. And that’s the kind of a goal that I think we as practitioners of a system should have.

Those are the kinds of caring and compassionate feelings that we should bring to the task.

Photo by David Kindler

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