OP-ED: Sunshine Was Best Disinfectant at Senate Judiciary Hearing

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Judge Steven C. TeskeThe Senate hearing on “Improving Accountability and Oversight in Juvenile Justice Grants” is a precondition to introducing the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and a successful passage through Congress.

The roller coaster of emotions began in 2010 when a bill was introduced to reauthorize the JJDPA. The Democrats had control of Congress. The conventional thinking of party politics is that Democrats support social issues, and juvenile justice is widely perceived as a social issue.

The stars were aligned, or so we thought.

The bill fizzled and along with it our enthusiasm.

Fast forward to the 2014 midterm elections and it’s the Republicans in control of Congress. If the reauthorization couldn’t get passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress, certainly there was not a snowball’s chance in hell it would happen with the Republicans in control. Or so we thought.

Enter Sen. Charles Grassley — a Republican from Iowa named chair of the Judiciary Committee. Anyone who knows of him knows he is an advocate for kids.

He came out swinging, stating he was going to make juvenile justice a priority, and that he did. He introduced in the last Congress, along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., as co-sponsor, a bill to reauthorize the JJDPA.

With bipartisan support, the enthusiasm returned with greater vigor. Things were looking up again. Or so we thought.

It didn’t take long for news to hit the media that whistleblowers complained that some states fraudulently obtained federal funds and that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has refused to enforce the penalties for noncompliance, to the extent that they claim the states know this and have no incentive to comply.

Many became concerned that these allegations would derail a bill to reauthorize if introduced. Or so we thought.

“The truth never damages a just cause,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Unless it’s not the “whole truth,” and only part of the truth.

The majority of the prehearing media hype focused on the whistleblowers’ statements that a few states, specifically Wisconsin, doctored data to keep their juvenile justice funding. However, the hearing kept the reauthorization train on the tracks by shining light on everything.

According to one of the whistleblowers, the Wisconsin data-doctoring matter came to her attention in 2008. Doctoring data to receive funding is no doubt fraudulent, and egregious conduct that must be exposed to the sunlight.

What most people don’t know is that at a meeting in Denver the year before, the state’s juvenile justice specialists were blowing their whistles on compliance monitors for conduct they claimed exceeded the scope of the JJDPA.

I know. I was there. I was one of the complainants, and asked that corrective action be taken.

The administrator acted immediately and a meeting with the juvenile justice specialists occurred before leaving Denver.

The dialogue resulted in a several-page document produced by juvenile justice specialists across the country that expressed their concerns on how compliance monitoring was conducted.

I know — that document is sitting next to my laptop as I write this.

Maybe 2008 can be dubbed the “Year of the Paradox.”

On one hand there are compliance monitors blowing whistles on bosses for overlooking noncompliance and on the other are juvenile justice specialists blowing whistles on those same monitors for exceeding the scope of the JJDPA by expanding the monitoring universe, especially in a universe of dwindling funds.

Assuming that one can stretch the JJDPA language to expand to places not expressly stated in the JJDPA, they were expanded without notice to the states and an opportunity for comment. This behavior stuck in the craw of the state’s specialists because compliance monitors acted as though OJJDP was a rule-making agency when it’s not, and with the convenience of not having to adhere to the Administrative Procedure Act for promulgating rules.

You shouldn’t have your cake and eat it too, but they did.

The hearing opened all the doors to let the sunshine in so everything can be disinfected.

The oversight and accountability changes to the bill will be very helpful in the disinfection process, including a mandate that any requirements made on the states will be subject to notice and comment.

If the JJDPA is passed but not funded at levels at or close to pre-9/11, the significance of all this important oversight and accountability may become insignificant for some states. Less funding would not be worth the work that goes into an expanding universe.

I know because, as a member of our state advisory group and a past president of our judge’s council during the universe expansion, it was a struggle to convince local stakeholders to put up with our inspections, data collection and programs to promote the core protections with far less fiscal incentive.

Today, Georgia doesn’t need the money to incentivize us around the core protections. We have a reform culture that crosses every branch of government that is reinforced by a reform commission, but the funding remains essential for other reasons — to seed and proliferate what we are doing that is effective.

Examples of seeding using federal funds include several initiatives in my county going back to 2003 that together have reduced detention rates by 83 percent, commitment rates by 77 percent, the average daily population of minority youth by 75 percent and commitment rates of minority youth by 70 percent.

Together these programs have contributed to a reduction in juvenile arrests by 62 percent.

Our reform-minded state figured out that the money we get from OJJDP is better utilized by strategically targeting the highest-committing counties using new laws that require evidence-based programs.

Consequently, our statewide commitment rates are down 62 percent, of which a majority are minority youth.

Like other states, we removed our valid court order exception, and without Congress telling us.

Now that’s the rest of the truth.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

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