Has Bill Barr’s View Changed on Juvenile Justice?

William Barr is up for his second tour as Attorney General. Since his last tenure, juvenile arrest and incarceration rates have plummeted.

Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for William Barr, Trump’s nominee to succeed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the top job at the Department of Justice (DOJ). It would be Barr’s second tour of duty as the nation’s top cop – he was George H.W. Bush’s attorney general from 1991 to 1993.

Barr, as anyone even passively following national news is aware, will likely inherit an agency under a microscope for its handling of the Russia investigation. Juvenile justice is hardly a hot-button subject at DOJ. But if confirmed, Barr enters stage right shortly after the first reauthorization of federal juvenile justice law in more than a decade.

The recent update to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) renewed the executive branch commitment to basic state system standards, and also included some new provisions aimed at limiting solitary confinement, detention of status offenders, and locking youth up near adult offenders. Click here for our full analysis of the 100-page bill.

So where does Barr come down on juvenile justice? DOJ doesn’t wield a lot of influence over the treatment of youth by law enforcement and state/local systems. But the attorney general position is one of the biggest bully pulpits in the executive branch, and there’s enough discretionary cash kicking around DOJ that he could make juvenile justice a priority if he wanted to.

Youth Services Insider came across a speech from his last go-round at DOJ that gives some insight on what he at least used to believe when it came to kids, crime and punishment. It was delivered in Milwaukee on April 1, 1992, at a conference on juvenile crime, drugs and guns hosted by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R).

“The juvenile justice system needs to do two things better,” Barr said, early in the speech. “First it has to be more effective at intervening early enough to divert troubled youths away from a career of crime. Second, it has to be more effective at identifying and dealing decisively with the chronic offender who has embarked on a career of crime.”

At the time, juvenile arrest rates were continuing a decade-long surge. The rate for violent crime offenses, per 100,000 youth ages 10 to 17, went from 279.4 in 1983 to 497.5 by 1994. Barr said he saw a breakdown of “society’s most socializing institutions,” as a major driver of this problem.

He reserved his harshest criticism to public schools, who in his mind had been stripped of their authority as a disciplinarian.

The “moral lobotomy of public schools has been based on extremist notions of separation of church and state or on theories of moral relativism which reject the notion that there are standards of right or wrong to which the community can demand adherence.”

It isn’t entirely clear from the speech what forces, in Barr’s mind, specifically eroded the school’s authority to discipline. And the historical record does not exactly demonstrate that said erosion occurred – the 1990s saw a proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies at schools that prompted a dramatic rise in suspensions, expulsions and arrests on school grounds.

Turning to the system itself, Barr laid out a vision for reform that hinged on two principles. The first was more early intervention services offered upon first arrest.

“The juvenile delinquency track must be beefed up so that it intervenes early and sternly to make the juvenile accountable for his or her actions and stops further deterioration of the juvenile’s conduct,” Barr said. He cited a range of options that had impressed him: juvenile boot camps, Boystown, a neighborhood rehabilitation program in Kansas City.

When systems do not respond with “meaningful sanction” to a youth’s early offenses, he said, they become a “conveyor belt for career criminals.”

The second prong of his vision was increased permission to remove serious or chronic youth offenders from the juvenile justice system. In the speech, he bemoans the fact that only 5 percent of arrested juveniles were sent into the adult court system. Drug dealers and organized criminal enterprises, he argued, had latched onto the recruitment of teens because they knew they’d get off light.

“In my view, when the juvenile delinquency system deals with a serious offender too leniently, it is serving neither the juvenile nor society,” Barr argued. “Unfortunately, many of our criminal justice systems in this country … harken back to a more innocent age, and have strong built-in presumptions against treating juveniles as adults.

In general, I think we have to provide greater flexibility … and give law enforcement wider latitude to prosecute serious juvenile offenders as adults.”

Barr’s worldview at the time is not all that much different than the one espoused by his predecessor, Sessions, when he was a Senator. Click here for a look at S. 10, the juvenile justice bill Sessions pushed in the late 1990s.

More than 25 years have passed since Barr conferred those opinions on the Milwaukee crowd. In that time, juvenile arrests for violent crime have plummeted, down to 182.4 per 100,000 in 2012. Juvenile detention and incarceration rates have also plummeted. Meanwhile, nearly two dozen states have made legislative or policy moves that reduced the inclusion of youth in the adult system, either through “raise the age” movements or limits on the ability to transfer youth into adult court.

Juvenile justice advocates are working to get juvenile justice questions into the mix for Barr’s hearing. Hopefully, a willing committee member can get him on the record about a few things. It would be interesting to know if the trends of the past two decades have changed his mind at all about trying youth as adults, and about what his priorities will be for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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