Juvenile Justice Division a Likely Victim in Massive Culling of Justice Department

The Trump Administration plans to cut thousands of Department of Justice positions, which may mean a 25 percent (or more) culling of the already tiny 60-person federal agency focused on juvenile justice, according to several sources at the department or with connections to the department.

News of these cuts comes as advocates are working feverishly to hammer through a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), a 44-year-old law that trades federal grants for compliance with basic juvenile justice standards.

“Cuts of this size are alarming, given the amount of work and content expertise necessary to properly administer the duties of the OJJDP office,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. “It is also inconsistent with the direction of Congress who has authorized higher levels for the program given its imminent reauthorization.”

The Justice Department aims to make the cuts over the next 18 months through attrition, relying on retirements and early retirement buyouts, sources say. If it comes to layoffs, the likely scenario will be a “last in-first out” policy.

Alan Hanson, acting head of the Office of Justice Programs, and OJJDP Administrator Caren Harp. The administration plans to slash jobs at OJP over the next 18 months.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) is the Justice Department’s primary liaison with state and local law enforcement agencies, providing large blocks of federal funds for new equipment and hiring new officers and collecting crime-related data.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, one of the six agencies within OJP, oversees funds related to juvenile justice, mentoring and efforts to help missing and exploited children.

At the heart of the agency is compliance with the JJDPA, which was passed in 1974 and lays out four core standards for juvenile justice practices:

  • Not locking up youth for committing status offenses, crimes like truancy that would not be a crime for an adult.
  • Removal of juvenile offenders from adult jails and prisons, with very limited exceptions.
  • In those very limited exceptions, sight and sound separation of juveniles from adults in facilities.
  • Making efforts to research, identify and address disproportional minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system.

States receive a formula grant for compliance with those standards, and face a 20 percent cut to the grant for each part it does not comply with.

The push to reauthorize takes on new meaning with the planned staffing cuts. Some advocates fear that without new legislation, JJDPA compliance will not be a priority in any shuffling of staff.

One advocate said that the word out of OJJDP was that the cuts would prompt the agency to “greatly loosen enforcement” of JJPDA compliance, especially around the disproportionate minority contact requirement. [The Obama administration updated several JJPDA standards shortly before leaving office, but did not update DMC].

The biggest impact of the cuts would be a gravitation away from managing grants and toward just monitoring them, said one OJJDP employee, on the condition of anonymity. It is a subtle but important difference between working with the programs and departments receiving federal funds, and simply checking paperwork submitted by them.

“If we got a mentoring grantee [who’s supposed to] serve 200 youths over three years, and they’ve only got 23 after a year, we can work with them,” the employee said, by way of example. “Do they need a van service to transport kids? If we can’t get into the weeds with them, they may never get to 200.”

The JJPDA has not been reauthorized in more than 15 years, despite repeated bipartisan efforts in Congress to pass an update. Both chambers have passed a bill in the previous two calendar years, but final passage has been stymied by the holdout of one member: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who opposes the inclusion of a gradual phasing out of a loophole that enables the detention of status offenders who violate court orders.

Both chambers have reportedly agreed to scuttle the phaseout to accommodate Cotton, but the bill has yet to proceed without that provision.

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

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