Of Truculence, Truancy & Taxis

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The acerbic Harry Truman once commented on his 1850s predecessor, Franklin Pierce, that when he was in the White House, Pierce “didn’t know what was going on, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have known what to do about it.” That pretty much sums up the reign so far of J. Robert Flores, who has served since April 2002 as the presidentially appointed administrator of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJ).

On his silent watch, OJJ funding has declined from $539 million in fiscal 2002 to $349.8 million this year. The agency’s juvenile mentoring program has gone from $24 million to $5 million. President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget proposal would eliminate the $60 million juvenile accountability incentive block grants program. Altogether, that budget would fund OJJ at $189.4 million, a two-thirds cut in spending since the president took office.

Under a reorganization of OJJ’s parent agency, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Flores has been stripped of any appreciable role in program evaluation or research.

In lieu of addressing the major problems of the youth service field, Flores and his deputy, former Bakersfield, Calif., prosecutor Bill Woodruff, have turned their attention to ensuring that dissent on Bush administration juvenile justice matters, large and small, is rooted out with a zeal once reserved for hunting weapons of mass destruction.

A year ago Woodruff, a former Navy SEAL, began bullying (without success) the not particularly militant or effective Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), run by David Doi, to hew to the administration’s party line. Founded two decades ago as the National Coalition of State Juvenile Justice Advisory Groups, the CJJ mostly represents the gubernatorially appointed committees (known as SAGs, for state advisory groups) in each state that oversee juvenile justice policies and the formula grant distribution of OJJ’s shrinking funds.

With the nation’s governors (28 of whom are Republicans) appointing the SAGs, their membership, like the CJJ itself, couldn’t be more mainstream. But SAG members are committed to improving youth services and have the professional experience and knowledge that Flores and Woodruff glaringly lack. Nor are the SAGs interested in supporting the Bush administration’s steady slide toward zero funding of federal juvenile justice and delinquency prevention efforts.

But to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, the SAGs might as well be the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), which once terrorized California.

After cutting CJJ’s funds by 48.6 percent (to $344,000), OJJ proceeded to set up a new $325,000 per-year Federal Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (FAC), with each governor appointing one member and one alternate to give expert advice. But while the CJJ, per its congressional mandate, felt free to advise anyone who would listen – an audience that, truth be told, included very few people on Capitol Hill – Flores’ new FAC would advise only Flores.

To that end, in January OJJ gathered the new FAC members in Alabama to discuss at length all the things the FAC allegedly can’t do, or so it seemed to its bewildered participants. Flores, Woodruff and two civil service lawyers had only one message: All advice must go through Flores or else. The ‘or else’ in the windy two-day discourse was, says Pat Connor, an Illinois lawyer in attendance, “all by way of scaring people off” from trying to influence federal or even state policy.

Hasan Davis, a Kentucky lawyer, was “dumbfounded” by OJJ’s presentation on lobbying restrictions. Another participant recalls the emphasis on “steep civil penalties” if an FAC member or an individual working in an agency with an OJJ grant was reckless enough to contact Congress. Attendee Robin Jenkins, executive director of Cumberland County’s CommuniCare in Fayetteville, N.C., wrote in informal minutes: “Counsel Charlie Moses from OJP made it clear that civil penalties for violation of these lobbying law statutes are very steep, and could create significant liabilities for grantees,” referring to FAC members. Those penalties, the FAC was told, could go up to $100,000 a year for each “incident.”

According to OJJ, if the FAC members have contact with their governors or state legislatures, they do so at their peril. Even the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 against President George Washington was thrown in as a cautionary precedent. One law professor on hand says he thought to himself, “This is ludicrous.” OJJ’s ominous advice: Before contacting public officials (other than Flores) at the state or federal level, get a written legal opinion from the state attorney general. In Kentucky, says Hasan, a “fast-track” opinion takes at least six months.

That’s pretty intimidating stuff if you’re addressing a gaggle of morons, a group not represented in the audience – although perhaps at the podium – in the ironically named gathering spot of Point Clear, Ala.

False Start

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson tried a similar ploy with the 2,500 Head Start grantees last May. In a letter signed by Wendy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau, the Bush administration threatened legal action against any grantee who spoke out against its reauthorization proposals in Congress to revamp the $6.7 billion program, which employs 180,000 staff (average salary: $21,000) and claims 870,000 volunteers. Their trade group, the National Head Start Association, led by Sarah Green, promptly took HHS to federal court for infringing on the free speech rights of Head Start stakeholders. After a hearing before Federal District Court Judge Reggie Walton (a deputy director to Bill Bennett at the White House Office of Drug Control Policy during Bush I), HHS reluctantly went along with Walton’s urging to issue a retraction. HHS was forced to send another letter in early July, stating, “We are all at liberty to contact our representatives about our political thoughts and concerns.” Point clear?

While technically correct that federal money cannot be used by grantees to lobby, in the real world, says Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, it comes down to “cost allocation techniques.” He regularly advises federal grantees, “Don’t take 100 percent from anything,” especially a federal grant, when calculating salaries and other expenses. Georgetown Law Center Professor David Vladeck, an expert on the Federal Advisory Committee Act, says that FAC membership “certainly does not inhibit anyone on their own time” from offering advice to anyone, including members of Congress.

As for those “steep penalties,” Vladeck doubts if anyone has ever been prosecuted under the statute (cited by OJJ), which was tightened by Congress in 2002 and remains largely untested in federal court.

Despite (or was it because of ?) Justice Department muscle, the FAC quickly organized in a manner not to Flores and Woodruff’s liking. Many in the FAC have known and respected each other from CJJ and other juvenile justice gatherings. They promptly elected David Schmidt, the veteran director of the New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency, as chairman, and Kentucky’s Davis as vice chairman. Schmidt then appointed Flores’ fellow Virginian, University of Richmond emeritus law professor Bob Shepherd, to chair the annual report committee; Billy Wasson of Oregon to chair a planning committee; and attorney Mike Meyer of Minnesota to chair a legal committee.

After wasting an estimated $150,000 on the Alabama trip to the woodshed, OJJ gained nothing in the policy arena, according to Connor, who is coordinator of juvenile justice reform initiatives at the John Howard Association in Chicago. “Substantially, they’re going to get the same advice” they would have gotten from the CJJ, Connor says. The difference is that with the FAC, Justice will attempt to pick the report’s author and approve its content in advance. The FAC report will be produced by OJJ for OJJ. No discussion or debates about juvenile death penalty opposition, disproportionate minority overrepresentation, waiving juveniles to adult courts or other unpleasant subjects.

Other than the Bush administration officials, even CJJ’s critics say its annual reports have been insightful, well-researched and well-written, with sound recommendations for system improvement.

The recently released 2003 CJJ report, “Unlocking the Future: Detention Reform in the Juvenile Justice System,” was paid for by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives, directed by Bart Lubow. The report was written by journalists John Huber and Jill Wolfson of Santa Cruz, Calif., who have written four previous reports to Congress for CJJ.

Enter Truancy

Although almost all of OJJ’s national juvenile justice discretionary funds ($78 million of the $79 million for fiscal 2004) are earmarked by Congress, Flores’ office can still find money for the right cause, thanks to carve-outs from other Office of Justice Program funds.

Consider the recent noncompetitive grant to a new nonprofit, the National Truancy Prevention Association (NTPA), of $1.1 million over three years. Last November, Flores attended a meeting in that nest of inner-city delinquency, Newport, R.I., hosted by Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah of the Rhode Island Family Court. What this country needs is not a good 5-cent cigar, but a new boutique court for truants, the assemblage decided.

Thus was launched the NTPA, with Jeremiah as president. The first vice president is Judge Joan Byer of the Jefferson Family Court in Louisville, Ky., described by one insider as the “driving force” behind NTPA. Staffing this latest entry in the youth field’s plethora of national niche trade groups is Jeff Kuhn, a consultant who operates Family Justice Strategies in Leesburg, Va. Kuhn says the NTPA was to open for business March 1. He’s providing “a long-term strategy plan” for NTPA and “exploring new ground” on truancy issues. Kuhn worked at the National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges ( NCFJCJ) in Reno as director of its Family Court Resource Center and as chief consultant to the American Bar Association on Unified Family Court matters.

Unified? The judicial trend is decidedly toward the contrary. Drug courts, gun courts, mental health courts, re-entry courts (and more) all have their adherents. Research on the effectiveness of separate truancy courts, or even what constitutes a truancy court, is limited. A November press release announcing the “creation” of NTPA offers that one participant, John Kennedy, director of Youth Emergency Services in Indianapolis, has “seen studies that truancy is linked to family issues, including domestic violence and drug abuse.”

Duh? How could truancy not be a risk factor? For an administration officially committed to using evidence-based research to inform grant making, that’s a weak rationale for focusing on something that may be a characteristic, not a cause, of delinquency.

Efforts to learn from OJJ if the NTPA’s grant ever went through the legally required peer review process were unsuccessful.

On close inspection, there is not much new anyway. Byer says truancy courts are really just a “diversion model,” with the twist that a robed judge and bailiff hold court-like meetings with reluctant students and their families in public schools where chronic truants are enrolled. Needed or not, the arrival of the NTPA found the Reno-based NCFJCJ “very surprised” that OJJ would commit $1.1 million to the venture.

One vocal proponent of the NCFJCJ’s preferred unified family court approach is Honolulu Circuit Court Judge Mike Town.

Truancy courts, says Town, “don’t do enough.” In Town’s view, juvenile courts must comprehensively address the preventive, therapeutic and restorative justice needs of the parties involved. To Town, who chairs the local Boys & Girls Club board, truancy courts are “boutique” undertakings that promote a “flavor of the month” approach to youth work.

Is promoting truancy courts a good idea with a high enough priority to warrant OJJ funding?

At least one federal official doesn’t think truancy and dropout prevention are worthy of continued federal interest. In his fiscal 2005 budget proposal, Bush asked Congress to eliminate the $5 million for the dropout prevention program in the Department of Education.

Truant in Turkey

Last October, while OJJ was busy crippling the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and funding the National Truancy Prevention Association, Administrator Flores was off on a one-week junket to London and Ankara, Turkey. Flores spoke at a Turkish government conference on his favorite subject – sex crimes involving children – and consulted in London with Scotland Yard.

The shopping must have been excellent. His $4,266.10 in travel expenses for the trip include a $50 taxi fare to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and a $112.34 return trip from the airport. The Washington Flyer Taxi service says the one-way fare for one passenger from Flores’ home or office (both about 28 miles from Dulles) would be $40 to $45.

It’s not a lot of money, but why did the return trip cost more than twice as much as the first ride? It’s hard to say, since Flores’ travel voucher doesn’t include receipts for the rides (as required of government employees), and Flores wouldn’t answer questions about it when reached by phone.

Some may think that’s no big deal – unless you’re one of those FAC members who’s been threatened with dire consequences for not precisely following Flores’ procedures. One career civil servant at OJJ was surprised that Flores’ voucher wasn’t automatically bounced back for excess charges.

So much for precise adherence to laws and regulations.

Contact: CJJ (202) 467-0864, www.juvjustice.org; OJJDP (202) 307-5911, www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org.