Heading into the holiday weekend, the Justice Department announced late this week that it would wipe out a year-old guidance on fees and fines for juvenile offenders and their families, and federal rules on a once-significant juvenile justice block grant. It is also retiring an online university for juvenile justice services that began in 2015, and temporarily shut down the main portal for training and technical assistance.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a federal notice sent by the Obama Justice Department in its final month, which advised state agencies on the administration’s position that youth should be viewed differently than adults when it comes to punishment and penalty.
“When it comes to youth … courts cannot stop at the protections afforded to adults,” the Obama advisory said. “The Constitution demands unique protections for juveniles in the justice system due to children’s diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”
A previous letter to agencies, sent in 2016, noted that fines and fees issued to juvenile offenders can be debilitating to poor families. This includes financial penalties for delinquency, and fees associated with the detention or incarceration of juveniles in county or state facilities.
Sessions’ action on the notice prompted immediate condemnation by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC), which helped prompt the notice with its 2016 report, “Debtors’ Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System.”
“The value of the guidance was to use the leverage of the Department of Justice to advise on best practices,” said JLC Executive Director Sue Mangold in the organization’s press release.
Several jurisdictions – including Philadelphia, Contra Costa County, California and Sacramento County, California – have cut back on fines and fees since JLC and the Justice Department brought attention to the issue.
“Punishing youth for their inability to pay fees still violates the U.S. Constitution; yesterday’s move from the Justice Department doesn’t change that,” said JLC Associate Director Jessica Feierman. “We will be advocating in courts across the country to ensure that youth are protected from the harmful and discriminatory impact of inappropriate fines and fees.”
Sessions also rescinded the federal guidance on the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG) program, which began in 1997. The guidance was most recently updated in 2007, under President George W. Bush, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
JABG allocated money to states for improving the performance of juvenile systems. It is a pretty wide-open block grant, permitting spending on such things as graduated sanctions, gun courts, restorative justice and hiring detention and corrections staff.
Sessions’ action sort of put the final nail in the coffin of what seemed an already dead program. During its first five years, JABG was funded at $250 million by Congress. That slipped to $190 million in 2003, and had plummeted to $50 million by 2007.
JABG has not been funded at all by Congress since 2014, and President Trump did not request any funding for JABG in 2018.
OJJDP also announced today that it would be “retiring” the websites for the National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) and the OJJDP Online University. The agency said it “expects to launch a new website early next year that will contain expanded information about OJJDP’s [training and technical assistance] services and resources.”
Youth Services Insider has heard that the agency has been planning a reboot of the website to accommodate TTA360, a program designed to quicken and improve response to requests for assistance. So it’s possible this is an effort to head in that direction, though it’s not entirely clear why the agency would need to shut down the existing website to prep another one.
It is also not clear from the notice if the OJJDP Online University, which began in 2015 as a way to deliver training on demand, has been shut down or will continue as part of the planned new website. Some of the online session subjects include connecting with LGBT youth, children exposed to violence, racial and ethnic disparities and girls in the juvenile justice system.
NTTAC is managed for OJJDP via contract by ICF International. Francis Mendez, former national director of juvenile justice programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters, is ICF’s senior project manager in charge of NTTAC.