Experts Blast Federal Approach To Juvenile Crime


The federal agency that deals with juvenile crime issues needs better leadership and more money, says an expert panel of the National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academy of Sciences.

After suffering from years of declining appropriations from Congress, the committee says in a report issued this week that the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is viewed as “being in a state of limited capacity and stature.”

It was not until President Barack Obama’s second term that his administration named a permanent administrator of the agency. Robert L. Listenbee, a former public defender for juveniles in Philadelphia, assumed the title in March 2013.

The national committee noted that Congress has not reauthorized the law that guides the agency since 2002, that its funding fell by half between 2003 and 2010, and that “the discretion that OJJDP has to use its funding has been sharply compromised.”

The report explained that both Congress and the Justice Department itself have put restrictions on the agency that have “undercut OJJDP’s ability to assist states and localities with juvenile justice system issues.”

In previous decades policymakers in states, which determine practices dealing with most juvenile crimes, have largely set punishments for offenders without regard to research findings on adolescent development.

The NRC panel says “OJJDP’s portfolio needs to be rebalanced” to take into account proven interventions for juveniles. The experts listed these as “accountability without criminalization, alternatives to justice system involvement, individualized response based on assessment of needs and risks, confinement only when necessary for public safety, a genuine commitment to fairness, sensitivity to disparate treatment, and family engagement.”

Historically, many states have depended on federal grants from OJJDP to fund innovations in their juvenile justice systems.

The declining support from Congress has made it more difficult to reform the system, say the NRC experts. They say part of the problem is that Congress tends to require the agency to fund programs having nothing to do with the juvenile justice system, hampering opportunities to help states meaningfully.

The expert panel singled out one part of OJJDP’s mission that “has not been effective”: reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. The committee called on OJJDP to “require each jurisdiction to identify specific decision points where disparities emerge or are magnified, assess the reasons for these disparities, develop a plan for modifying the policy or practice that appears to be producing the disparities, evaluate outcomes of the plan, and revise and improve the plan if necessary to reduce disparities.”

The committee called on the American Bar Association to revise its national set of Juvenile Justice Standards, which has not been done in nearly 35 years.

NRC’s committee is chaired by Richard J. Bonnie of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy of the University of Virginia. Other members are:

Sam J. Abed of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services;

Grace Bauer of Justice for Families;

Kevin J. Bethel of the Philadelphia Police Department;

Sandra A. Graham of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles;

Maxwell Griffin Jr. of the Child Protection Division of Illinois’ Cook County Juvenile Court,

Patricia Lee of the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender;

Edward P. Mulvey of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh;

Alex R. Piquero of the Program in Criminology at the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences of the University of Texas at Dallas;

Vincent Schiraldi of the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice;

Cherie Townsend, a consultant from Idabel, OK; and

John A. Tuell of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice and the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps.

Asked to comment on the NRC report, Marc Schindler of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, a longtime juvenile justice reformer, said, “Since the end of the Clinton administration and essentially up until the appointment of Bob Listenbee, OJJDP had been a neglected agency that suffered from a lack of leadership. Combined with significant cuts to its budget, the agency is struggling to provide the type of support the field needs during a time where there is great opportunity for reforms.”

This year, Schindler testified to the panel that, “If done well, OJJDP-supported research evaluating adolescent development practices and programs being utilized in the juvenile justice field can serve the same role that OJJDP did in the late 1990s and early 2000's on issues related to transfer of youth to the adult criminal justice system, which helped inform the field and greatly impacted policy and practice.”

Marie Williams, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said the group “is heartened to see that following [last year’s] release of the National Academies of Sciences report, Reforming Juvenile Justice, concrete steps are being taken to implement its recommendations, and to incorporate what we now know about adolescent brain development into juvenile justice policies and practices.”

She added that state advisory groups on juvenile jutsice have a “vital role … in any proposed reform effort” and called OJJDP “and the philanthropic community to provide robust support not only for specific reform areas, but for strengthening the capacity of the SAGs to carry out this important charge.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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