Oy Vey, Pity OJJ

Print More

The weekend of Sept. 7, 1974, was an eventful one for accidental President Gerald Ford. Most remember his presidential pardon of his predecessor, Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon. But for youth workers and others in the juvenile justice field, Ford’s reluctant signature on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has proven to be the more important crime matter on his desk some 28 years ago.

The act’s passage, recalls Barry Krisberg, CEO of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, was “a landmark” in child welfare legislation “that instituted positive sweeping changes in practice” throughout the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention field. The law established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJ) within the U.S. Department of Justice.

Cut to now: A combination of factors appears to have consigned the Office of Juvenile Justice to permanent pipsqueak status within the Office of Justice Programs (OJP).

First, there is the matter of leadership – or lack thereof – for the agency, which in fiscal year 2003 has a budget of $275.3 million, plus $32.8 million for its Missing Children’s Program. Just as when he was governor of Missouri, Attorney General John Ashcroft has shown little interest in core juvenile justice issues such as delinquency prevention, strengthening court diversion, alternatives to incarceration programs or minority over-representation in secure juvenile facilities.

Instead, missing kids, child porn on the Internet, teen prostitution and, most emphatically, executing eligible 16- and 17-year-old offenders get top Ashcroft billing. He recently told Justice Department employees that his role was that of an avenging angel.

Tapped to run OJJ’s parent OJP was Deborah Daniels, sister of White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mitchell Daniels. Ashcroft found a kindred spirit in Bush’s nominee to run OJJ – J. Robert Flores, confirmed by the Senate as administrator last April. In Flores’ nearly one year on the job, few have been impressed.

Comments one former OJJ staffer, “We grew used to organized leadership,” a reference to Clinton administration OJJ Administrator Shay Bilchik, now CEO of the Child Welfare League of America. Another departed staffer is more charitable, saying Flores, an attorney and career anti-child-porn crusader, has “very little power.”

OJJ Deputy Administrator Bill Woodruff, a former Navy SEAL and deputy district attorney from Bakersfield, Calif., gets even weaker reviews. One veteran senior juvenile justice expert recalls hearing Woodruff speak in Texas, where the expert found Woodruff to be an embarrassment to OJJ and simply “out of his league,” with “no knowledge of how [the juvenile justice system] operates.”

Do the Shuffle

That alone would be enough to cause what one staffer calls “a brain drain” at OJJ. But the Bush administration inherited a reorganization plan crafted by Deborah Daniels’ predecessor in the Clinton administration, Laurie Robinson. The plan essentially returns the Justice Department to the organizational setup that prevailed before the JJDPA passed in 1974, spreading juvenile justice responsibilities throughout OJP’s $4.5 billion bureaucracy.

The real point of the reshuffling isn’t to improve either juvenile or criminal justice policy or programs. Rather, it is intended to centralize decision-making in the office of the deputy attorney general for justice programs – namely, Deborah Daniels.

Shuffled off to oblivion as sidekicks to their criminal justice counterparts are the core functions of research, statistics and publications. The OJJ staff, which once numbered 125, is down to about 70, thanks to purges in 2001 of senior staff deemed too close to the ousted Democrats, an almost two-year hiring freeze and a drove of retirements.

Even John Wilson, the resident encyclopedia on the Juvenile Justice Act and its administrative history, who served as many terms as OJJ acting administrator as FDR did as president, has been barred from any contact with OJJ since returning from a year’s assignment in Maryland’s state government. Wilson is now in the office of general counsel for OJP.

Says one knowledgeable outsider, “I don’t know why they [Daniels, et al.] just don’t go ahead and move everything” to other OJP offices. But the remaining staff at OJJ may have one final statistical benefit to yield for the Bush administration.

Bush wants to “privatize” as many as 850,000 civil servant jobs. Under an Office of Management and Budget guideline, known as OMB Circular A-76, a government agency must “compete out” 50 percent of jobs deemed to be “commercial activities.” The Justice Department is expected to competitively out-source 15 percent of its jobs – no easy task when most employees are FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration staff, or prosecutors and others involved in inherently “governmental” functions. That leaves 827 OJP employees as prime candidates to fill the Justice Department quota.

More than 600 of them are represented by a labor union, AFSCME Local 2830, led by OJP public affairs staffer and union shop steward Stu Smith. Up for privatization at what will almost certainly be nonunion shops are 515 jobs (84 percent of the AFSCME local’s membership) at OJP.

The federal unions have struck back, claiming the effort is aimed at undercutting federal employee unions. Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFL-CIO), told The Washington Post that federal unions would fight in Congress to “challenge the Bush administration’s attempt to use privatization to pay off its contractor cronies with taxpayer dollars.” Shop steward Smith wrote to OJP’s Daniels in November, “It is unnerving for us [OJP employees] to witness the unseemly rush to dismantle 40 years of largely successful anti-crime work.”

During the Capitol Hill fight last fall over establishing the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration and its congressional GOP allies labeled the federal unions as “unpatriotic” for defending union members’ contract rights in the new department. Some of the mud stuck, but not enough to prevent Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) from inserting language in OJP’s fiscal 2003 appropriations bill prohibiting “competitive sourcing” until a “detailed plan” is approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.

That won OJP employees, including those at OJJ, a reprieve from implementation (but not planning) of Circular A-76 until at least next October. If the circular A-76 privatization is ever implemented, says one OJJ staffer, “there will be no OJJ, just a bunch of contractors running around.”

Acts of Discretion

Unrestrained by the Hatch Act prohibition against partisan activities and exempt from the code of ethics that governs oath-taking civil servants, one place that would-be OJJ contractors will be running around is Capitol Hill (already swarming with lobbyists for thousands of federal for-profit contractors).

For now, though, the juvenile justice pickings for contractors are slim, thanks to a congressional earmark system for awarding noncompetitive grants that has run amuck. While Congress has ordered mandatory math testing for all school children (through the No Child Left Behind Act), the national legislature, as a group, would never make it out of third grade.

Consider the recently enacted 1,500-page, $397.4 billion Omnibus Appropriations bill. In it, Congress appropriated $89,257,000 for so-called discretionary grants for OJJ. Exercising that discretion to the tune of at least $89,970,000 in earmarks was Congress itself, which also took $3 million for evaluations – leaving OJJ with no discretion, and not even enough money to cover the congressional commitments. (Earmarks will probably be shaved.) With Flores doing little more than “watching the office being dismantled,” says a former top OJJ official, many groups see no alternative to jockeying for these direct grants from Congress.

The congressional penchant for home-based projects has not sat well with the Bush administration. The Justice Department’s own 2003 budget summary says, “The original purpose of this program (research and development of risk factors) has not been possible in recent years due to the level of earmarking. … In 2002, 100 percent of the program was earmarked.”

Among this year’s sweepstakes winners are some of OJJ’s earmarked-for-life grantees, such as the Reno, Nev.-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges ($3 million), presided over by former Baltimore Judge David Mitchell; Girls and Boys Town USA ($1.5 Million) in Nebraska, led by Father Val Peter; the New York City-based “I Have a Dream” Foundation ($1.5 million), run by Marina Winton; and Claremont, Calif.-based Parents Anonymous ($3 million), steered by the hardly anonymous Lisa Pion-Berlin.

Gaining smaller earmarks are the hard-hitting Somerville, Mass., boxing club ($200,000) and the melodious Brooklyn Academy of Music ($750,000). What cash-starved youth-serving CEO wouldn’t welcome the $100,000 earmark for the Culinary Education Training component of the At-Risk Youth Program at Johnson & Wales University in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in Aberdeen, Md., hit a $2 million home run, while the Orange County, Calif., Fire FRIENDS program burned the taxpayers for $500,000.

Another grant for $100,000, from OJJ’s Safe School Initiative, went to one of the nation’s wealthiest towns, Bronxville, N.Y. (where the median household income is $104,000) for video surveillance equipment.

From the $15,965,000 juvenile mentoring program, Big Brother Big Sisters of America, run by Judith Vredenburgh, received a $5 million off-the-top earmark.

That something-is-still-missing-in-my-life feeling that gnaws at the wealthy apparently got to Ernie Allen, CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center on Missing and Exploited Children (NEMEC). The group won a $12.5 million earmark from the $32.8 million Missing Children Programs, plus another $4 million for its Child Sexual Exploitation Campaign, or almost 4.5 percent of all the funds available for “Part C” juvenile justice and delinquency prevention programs through OJJ.

Now throw in the federal deficit – likely to go far north of $300 billion, with the president’s latest voodoo tax cut proposals and a looming Iraq attack – and the OJJ situation verges on hopeless. One saddened former OJJ staffer laments that the OJJ “was a dynamic organization helping the field and helping kids.” Now, says a current staffer, “Everybody I know [at OJJ] is looking for a job.”

With the field facing massive budget cuts at the state and local level, is there any hope for renewed public and political interest in crime prevention-oriented youth work? Krisberg, at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, says, “Juvenile crime rates are kicking up.” But unlike the 1970s and ’80s, says the veteran researcher, there is no “vibrant national debate” over youth crime and its prevention. Ironically, that lack of interest is caused in part, says Krisberg, by the success of community-based youth-serving agencies in preventing delinquency by delivering a mosaic of positive youth development programs. He notes that the incarcerated population of under-21s at the California Youth Authority has dropped from more than 10,000 in 1996 to
5,500 today.

Cracks Krisberg: “Where’s John DiIulio” – prognosticator of the phantom super predator juvenile crime wave of the mid-90s – “now that we need him?”

Perhaps the former head of the White House faith-based office is searching for an earmark.

Contact: OJJ (202) 307-5911, http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org.