Are Justice Funds Up For Grabs?

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The reality of tight budgets in a time of war has rendered youth advocates fairly quiet on budget battles in recent years, but last month President Bush gave the juvenile justice field something to get worked up about.

To some, it looks as if he’s virtually eviscerating the federal role in overseeing juvenile justice funding. The administration says it’s giving the states more discretion to use federal funds in the best way possible.

The controversy surrounds the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). On the one hand, the president’s 2008 budget request for OJJDP is 37 percent higher than it was for 2007 – although the $280 million he seeks is well below the amounts Congress approved for 2006 and 2007 ($342.7 million).

But it is Bush’s proposed new structure for OJJDP funding that has critics worried.

The president seeks to create a Child Safety and Juvenile Justice Block Grant, which would essentially fold all of the specific funding priorities in OJJDP’s budget into one large pot to be dished out proportionally to the states. Of the $280 million, $254 million is slated for “juvenile justice programs.”

The new arrangement would remove most of the authority the federal government holds over the field, several juvenile justice advocates argue. “This is an alarming and potentially devastating abandonment by the feds,” says Morna Murray, director of the education and youth development division at the Children’s Defense Fund.

The upside of the consolidation, according to the Bush proposal, includes the elimination of “formulas and earmarks … creating a single, flexible and competitive grant program.” The new scheme would also “address multiple child safety and juvenile justice needs, depending on local need or national priority,” and expand “efforts to prevent crimes against children, and investigate sexual predators, [and] child prostitution rings.”

Fundamental Change?

Theoretically, the current system is set up so OJJDP can develop research and pilot projects to improve juvenile justice practice, then fund efforts to implement the most promising efforts.

About one-third of the OJJDP budget is in a discretionary spending pot for the purpose of developing new initiatives. Other OJJDP spending lines include gang prevention, drug prevention, mentoring programs and Juvenile Accountability Block Grants (JABG).

But many who monitor the field are seeing this new plan while already believing that Congress and the Bush administration have short-changed juvenile justice in recent years. For the past five years, the agency’s discretionary money for new programs has been almost completely earmarked by Congress. JABG (once an “overwhelmingly supported stream” by both parties, Murray says) had been reduced from $250 million in 2002 to $50 million by 2007.

“Leadership has waned in the past few years, as funding has slipped and earmarking has taken away [the agency’s] discretion,” said Shay Bilchik, who left last month as head of the Child Welfare League of America to become director of the new Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Systems Integration, based at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. (See Newsmakers, March 2007.)

“When you take the dynamic program that once existed at OJJDP and turn it into a block grant, you have abdicated any federal leadership role” in juvenile justice, said Bilchik, who served as OJJDP administrator under the Clinton administration.

Block grants tend not to fare well in tough fiscal times, Bilchik said: “Once you go to a block grant, you’re setting yourself up for lower appropriations, eventually. It’s just a matter of year-to-year appropriations.”

Combining funding streams would hurt the ability of advocates to make a public case for specific funding streams, Murray argues. It is much easier for someone promoting mentoring to push for more mentoring grant money in general than it would be to push each state to use more of its block grant for that purpose.

Those specific budget line items offer a “core protection” that goes away once you forsake programs for a block grant, says Miriam Rollin, vice president of federal policy at the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. “The only things that the core protections are attached to are the dollars. So if the dollars aren’t there, the requirements aren’t there.”

Bush also proposed that the block grants include money for school safety, as well as child safety and exploitation, an issue that OJJDP Director J. Robert Flores is passionate about. “Of the $250 million he’s proposing, there’s no way to know how much will go to JJ efforts,” Murray says. “That’s frightening.”

A state could spend a large portion of its money on the newly added priorities, Murray said. Those working to fight sex crimes involving children “should be served,” she said, “but not lumped in with JJ. This money is to help kids in trouble, and keep kids out of trouble, and there’s no guarantee they’d get the money they need” under the new structure.

The prospects for congressional acceptance of the block grant plan are unclear. Murray sees “the chances of passing as nil.” Bilchik believes opponents of the plan need to take it more seriously. Block grants “often appear to be a good option in a climate” where both parties are forced to contemplate spending thrift, he said.

Meanwhile, OJJDP faces decisions on its 2007 discretionary budget, which for the first time in years will not be consumed by congressional earmarks before it hits the agency’s bank account. The grant management staff has dwindled over the years, so there is some speculation that OJJDP’s parent agency, the Office of Justice Programs, will oversee the grant competition for 2007. Because the discretionary pot carries only the loose mandate of developing new initiatives, some advocates wonder what priorities the office will set.

OJJDP was unavailable to comment.