Political Implications of OJJDP “Compliance-Gate”

This week’s Senate Judiciary Committee “Compliance-Gate” hearing on Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention grants brought a relatively bureaucratic kerfuffle into the political theater.  It isn’t every day that an assistant attorney general testifies at the same hearing as two of her employees, and is asked by a senator – Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) – to vow she will not punish them in any way.

The depth and breadth of the alleged compliance problems at OJJDP is, in the opinion of Youth Services Insider, yet to be determined. But since the Justice Department has pretty much admitted that there is some level of problem, the political ramifications are already in play.

Bob Listenbee’s Future

There is absolutely zero question that OJJDP’s compliance problems predate Administrator Robert Listenbee, who has only been on the job since 2013. But that might not save him from being the political sacrificial lamb in this mess.

Andrea Coleman, OJJDP’s coordinator on disproportionate minority contact (DMC), testified that Listenbee himself issued a “blanket pass” to all states on DMC compliance for 2015 and 2016.  The notion of this clearly bothered Grassley.

The alleged reason for this pass is the development of a better measurement tool for DMC compliance. But Listenbee was not invited to testify at this hearing. The administrator of the agency in question was sidelined while his superior, Mason, answered for the Justice Department.

When Grassley pressed Mason as to whether she felt a blanket pass was permissible under law, she ducked answering directly. But she did not dispute that it had happened.

YSI asked Grassley whether he had confidence in Listenbee as an administrator.

“The problems within this office are widespread and longstanding,” Grassley said. “Ms. Mason will have to determine whether the current leadership has exacerbated those problems by creating a blanket exemption from one of the core statutory requirements for federal funding.”

The union that represents OJJDP employees wants Listenbee gone because of “morale” in the agency. And framed in the most favorable light, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee would understand if Mason wanted to push him out for the “blanket pass” move.

If Listenbee is shown the door, you can almost certainly expect an interim administrator tasked with keeping their eye completely on getting compliance monitoring in order.

Juvenile Justice Reauthorization

After the hearing, juvenile justice advocacy groups flooded social media with praise for Sens. Grassley and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for their commitment to reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJPDA).

The law has been due for a reauthorization since 2002. Senate Judiciary has moved a reauthorization bill several times since, only to see the process stall without a Senate vote or any interest from the House.

Reauthorization was not at all the point of the hearing, but it does seem as if the issues of compliance will not impact the prospects for a reauthorization bill. Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Grassley, told YSI in February that the senator “will definitely introduce a reauthorization bill that builds on the bill that he and Senator Whitehouse introduced last Congress.”

Both Senators did indicate in their statements at the hearing their intention to introduce a reauthorization bill this year. Sen. Whitehouse said it would likely be several months before that happened.

The two senators introduced a reauthorization bill at the end of the last Congress, mostly as a political statement of support for the process. It will be interesting to what changes are made to the framework in that bill based on Compliance-gate.

One key piece of the bill from last Congress is its three-year phase out of the valid court order (VCO), the loophole by which judges are allowed to detain status offenders. Dean Rivkin, a witness at this week’s hearing, noted that junking the VCO loophole would dramatically simplify OJJDP’s compliance determinations on the detention of status offenders.

Juvenile Justice Appropriations

It’s important to remember that while the reauthorization process can change and improve JJPDA, funding for the act is determined by the appropriations process.

Funding for states under JJPDA has been slashed for several years. The appropriation for Title II Formula Grants, the primary JJPDA funding stream, declined from $75 million in 2010 to $40 million in 2012.

The Title II appropriation rose to $55 million in 2015. But a longtime complementary funding stream called the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant ($55 million in 2010) has been zeroed for the past two years.

And that was before appropriators knew that, by Justice’s own admission, the compliance process fueled by that funding was rife with problems and potential fraud.

There is another side to that coin: the compliance monitoring process becomes more difficult, and less financially incentivized, every time these grants get cut in appropriations. Some states may really chafe at another cut related to this mess.

The Senate Appropriations Committee includes a few longtime supporters of JJPDA, all on the Democrat side of the aisle: former Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), and Dick Durbin (Ill.), who attended this week’s hearing.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.