Juvenile Justice Experts Scrutinize OJJDP’s Role

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An 8-year-old boy found wandering the streets is sent to the Baltimore curfew center in Baltimore, Maryland. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

An 8-year-old boy found wandering the streets is sent to the Baltimore curfew center in Baltimore, Maryland. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

For more than a decade,  the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has been beset by inadequate funding and Congress dictating how it spends much of what it does receive, frequent changes in leadership, and waning influence.

Now the role, mission and funding of OJJDP have come under close scrutiny.

On Thursday and Friday, a committee that is to recommend ways OJJDP can be strengthened and realigned got an earful from experts in the juvenile justice field.

The committee is tasked with implementing key recommendations from a 2012 National Research Council report titled “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.”

OJJDP itself asked for the upcoming report, which is being funded by the agency and two influential foundations with strong backgrounds in juvenile justice, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At the two-day meeting, in Washington, the committee heard from panelists who spoke about the quality of counsel for juveniles; the role of State Advisory Groups (SAGs), which advise OJJDP;  family and youth engagement in the juvenile justice system; and racial and ethnic disparities among youth who become involved with the system.

The 2012 NRC report highlighted recent research showing adolescents are prone to risk taking and “novelty-seeking behavior” like alcohol and drug use and reckless driving; highly susceptible to peer pressure; apt to indulge immediate gratification; and less likely than adults to weigh long-term consequences of their behavior.

“A developmental approach to juvenile justice,” the report stated, “recognizes that illegal acts committed by adolescents occur at a time of life when individuals are more likely to exercise poor judgment, take risks, and pursue thrills and excitement.”

The report recommended that a “developmental approach” respond to such acts with treatment and services that enable youths to focus on “repairing the social injury or damage” caused by their behavior while making them understand how it has affected others and having them take responsibility for the behavior. The report also said the approach should provide activities, supports and opportunities for “normal emotional, physical and intellectual growth” delivered in settings appropriate to the ages and stages of the youths and in ways that are conducive to healthy development.

While states provide the bulk of the funding for juvenile justice, OJJDP helps set the agenda through grant-making, technical assistance and training and through its bully pulpit as part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

OJJDP’s authorizing legislation ties four core requirements to state formula funding: deinstitutionalization of status offenders, or those who commit offenses that wouldn’t be crimes for adults (like truancy or alcohol possession), limits on placing youths in adult jails and lockups, separation of juveniles from adults in secure adult facilities, and a reduction of disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

Panelists told the committee OJJDP has been hampered by, among other things, lack of congressional reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for more than six years, by sharp declines in appropriations and by severe limits in training and technical assistance the agency provides to programs in states.

Carmen Daugherty, policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, noted that OJJDP appropriations under the JJDPA have declined from more than $400 million in 2002 to less than $100 million today.

“I start at the most basic level – the need for JJDPA to be funded,” Daugherty told the committee. “Reauthorization is more than six years overdue, and funding has declined dramatically over past decade. States rely on these federal funds in order to leverage local dollars to [fund programs].

“Failing to reauthorize the JJDPA not only threatens the core protections that ensure that youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system and their families are treated fairly and  appropriately, it also disregards their communities’ interest in public safety and the fair administration of justice.”

The lack of JJDPA authorization also influences congressional lawmakers who set appropriations for OJJDP, said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, which OJJDP falls under, said the funding cuts have proved frustrating.

“At a time when we’re considering fundamental reforms, these cuts present a challenge,” Mason said. “We need to continue to raise awareness of the importance of these issues and to make sure the right people are getting the message out about the vital work that OJJDP does.

“So I’m hoping that people will eventually give us the resources we need to put into our young people, and then we won’t have to pay for it at the other end through our adult criminal justice system.”

Mason pointed out OJP and other federal agencies deal with juvenile issues on different fronts.

For example, the Department of Justice and Department of Education last month released guidelines on school discipline aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities in discipline and addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, chaired by the attorney general, brings together officials from numerous federal agencies along with others to help develop juvenile justice strategies.

But committee member Grace Bauer, co-director of the advocacy group Justice for Families, said she has tried unsuccessfully for 2 ½ years to have family and youth advisory group members appointed to the coordinating council.

“I’m just feeling a disconnect between what I’m hearing and what the reality has been for us as a group of families trying to work with OJJDP over the last 2 ½ years,” Bauer said. “We’ve come to that table willing to roll up our sleeves, willing to hunt down money to get things done, willing to be a partner in this, and I just don’t feel like we’ve gotten the appropriate response back [for] somebody who’s trying to partner up with the agency and help.

“It’s hard for me to figure out what recommendations to make if I can’t understand why it’s not happening now. That’s what I really want to understand. This isn’t about money. This is something more fundamental than that. This is about a culture change within your own agency…. This is a culture change that has to start at the very top.”

“I hear you that we’re not actively engaged with you in a way that you feel you got access to us and there’s open communication,” Mason responded. “Help me understand what that would look like.”

Committee Chairman Richard Bonnie, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a co-author of the 2012 report, said, “Sustained culture change is a hard job, and you have to be thinking about how to do that too.”

The report identified family and youth engagement as a key element of a juvenile justice reform approach informed by research about adolescent brain development.

Committee member Susan Badeau, who with her husband has adopted 20 children, many of them with special needs, said three of the couple’s sons became involved in the juvenile justice system and recalled how she was treated as a parent.

“It’s ‘you caused your child’s problem and you don’t even care and you don’t want to fix it and you don’t want to do what it takes to fix it.’ There’s almost no sense that you have any value at all,” said Badeau, also an author who has worked in fields serving children for more than 30 years. “It’s almost always that you’re treated as the problem.

“I’ve had times when I’ve showed up [at a juvenile detention facility] on a visiting day to learn that my child wasn’t there and that where he now was was two hours away and [was told], ‘By the way, it’s not visiting day there anyway, so you can’t see him.’ … My experience has been I often go back to my car and I just have to sit and cry.”

Badeau said she’s heartened by the committee’s focus on family engagement in juvenile justice reform.

She called on OJJDP to include families in juvenile justice reform, to link funding and resources to successful family engagement, and to provide peer-to-peer training to those working in the field to foster family engagement.

Other panelists at the meeting said OJJDP should provide states more of a mandate for reform.

In all 50 states, governor-appointed State Advisory Groups (SAGs) are charged with monitoring state compliance with the four core requirements of the JJDPA.

“SAGs don’t really have what they view as a clear mandate for reform from the federal government, so they’re monitoring very, very  specific requirements under the JJDPA,” said Marie Williams, executive director  of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, made up of the state groups.

“They don’t necessarily think of them as we think of them and speak of them at CJJ as core protections for young people … When you think of them as requirements, that’s more of a type of constraining type of concept: These are rules that we have to follow. When you think of them as protections, you know, you’re apt to be a little bit more innovative, a little bit more reform-oriented.”

Williams, like other panelists, also called on OJJDP to provide more training and technical assistance for juvenile justice programs.

Panelists told the committee OJJDP training and technical assistance often consists of a webinar or a daylong session when much more is needed to create and sustain meaningful reforms.

Panelists also told the committee OJJDP should collect and disseminate more research about successful juvenile justice reforms so they can be replicated.

One panelist, Susan Broderick, project director at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, called for more emphasis on drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

“The top of my wish list is always more attention to the issue of drug and alcohol use with the young people,” Broderick said. “And I feel that especially in the last few years … that issue has been put on the back burner, and in some ways there has been a bit of an overemphasis on mental illness issues, sometimes to the exclusion or really just ignoring the substance abuse disorders that we very often could have a key role in preventing or at least intervening much earlier than we’re doing right now.”


Editor’s Note: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the  Annie E. Casey Foundation are supporters of the JJIE.


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