Possible Priorities for Listenbee’s OJJDP

We reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration was planning to appoint Bob Listenbee to be the next administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and Obama made that official today in a statement announcing the decision.

What might we prognosticate for the Listenbee tenure? A few thoughts:

Violence

Listenbee just co-chaired the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, a key part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Defending Childhood initiative. The task force went on a listening tour of six cities and one military base, and then turned in a report on its findings.

The report recommendations include some predictable ideas for addressing the problem, including: all children exposed to violence should be screened, assessed and have access to evidenced-based treatments, and universal training at the collegiate level on emotional trauma for youth workers.

But one recommendation stood way out to YSI:

Finance change by adjusting existing allocations and leveraging new funding.
The federal government should provide financial incentives to states and communities to redirect funds to approaches with an established record of success in defending children against exposure to violence and enabling victimized children to heal and recover.

The phrase of interest is “adjusting existing allocations.” Sounds like Politicalease for “drastically change what OJJDP spends money on,” no?

President Obama’s initial 2012 budget proposed to replace most of the funding that goes to states for compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), and shifting to a Race to the Top-style competition where full compliance was just a state’s ticket to the sock hop.

The Justice Department moved away from the concept after a slew of objections from juvenile justice advocates and state compliance officials. Then again, the department did not have an appointed official with bona fides in juvenile justice selling the idea; so perhaps an “allocation adjustment” is still desired.

Gun control and school safety legislation will likely be introduced in both houses of Congress soon, and juvenile justice advocates would like to see violence prevention to be part of the mix (we’ll post more on this next week). There will surely be a desire to see Listenbee and OJJDP play a key role in pushing for that.

Many advocacy groups, including the National Association of Counties and the Children’s Defense Fund, have lined up in opposition to the notion of federal funding for police in schools.

“True safety will not result from having more guns in schools or other places where youth congregate,” said the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, in a letter sent to Vice President Biden while he was developing recommendations for the president. “True safety comes from comprehensive, evidence-based approaches that have been demonstrated to reduce violence.”

It will be tough for Listenbee or any other federal official to get on the pulpit when it comes to that subject. President Obama chose not to seek any legislation that might require schools to provide armed guards, but did include among his executive actions the provision of “incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.”

Indigent Defense

Listenbee was on the draft and review committee for the soon-to-be-released National Juvenile Defense Standards. It would be indefensible (see what we did there?!) to have a man who literally helped write the book on juvenile defense standards at the top of OJJDP and not have him champion the cause of improved legal defense for juvenile offenders.

“The idea of having a defender as leader of OJJDP means we can see change from a perspective that will most help the kids,” said Shaena Fazal, director of national policy for Youth Advocates Program, a multi-state provider of community intervention for juvenile offenders. “As a former defender and current advocate I am excited that Obama sees the value defenders play in the justice system, especially for kids where we have the best chance of stopping the cycle.”

Listenbee has been the face of public defenders for juveniles in Philadelphia for years. He sat on the state commission tasked with helping the state recover from the Luzerne County juvenile court scandal, one of the greatest breakdowns in legal representation the nation has ever witnessed.

Indigent defense was part of Access to Justice, a pet project of Attorney General Eric Holder at the same time he unveiled Defending Childhood. But unlike Defending Childhood, which the Justice Department has allocated money for pilot projects and research, not much came of Access to Justice other than a conference in Washington two years ago.

Asked about the project at a recent meeting of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, OJJDP’s coordinator of federal efforts Robin Delaney-Shabazz offered that it was elsewhere at DOJ and “they still have staff there.”

Perhaps Listenbee can breathe some life into the juvenile component of Access to Justice.

Reorganization and Compliance

Listenbee would inherit an agency that is about to undergo a structural makeover aimed, in part, at making its state relations and compliance processes more austere. As it is, the person who serves as a state’s OJJDP liaison all year is the same person monitoring its compliance.

Meanwhile, the value proposition for states has plummeted when it comes to complying at all with the JJDPA. The Title II Formula Grants, which are given to states in exchange for compliance, have dropped from $75 million in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. States with low populations are now receiving just $400,000 in exchange for fairly sophisticated monitoring of juvenile court practices and juvenile and adult facilities.

If Listenbee indeed heads up OJJDP, he’ll have the opportunity to make OJJDP a real player on some key issues in juvenile justice. He’ll also have the responsibility of making a new-look agency function, and keep states interested in working with OJJDP during a potentially long-term down-cycle in federal funding.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1094 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.