JJ Under Obama: The Dialogue Begins


"You just witnessed a whole lot of pent-up energy."

That was how former OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik began his short address Thursday to wrap up a town hall meeting among leaders in juvenile justice, a panel of their colleagues, and Charles Ogletree, who figures to be a prominent part of president-elect Barack Obama's Department of Justice.

Bilchik couldn't have put it better. Although the event sponsor, the American Bar Association, had said the event would go on with representatives from whoever won the presidential election just two days earlier, Obama was the clear pick among reform-minded JJ people after eight years of witnessing, as Coalition for Juvenile Justice's Tara Andrews put it, "the decimation of OJJDP as we know it."

About 150 advocates packed a Georgetown Law School lecture hall to make quick presentations to or ask questions of a five-member panel: Washington Post writer Chris Jenkins, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, Pennsylvania State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R), Georgetown Law Professor Kristin Henning and juvenile Judge Jay Blitzman of Lowell, Mass. Presenters had already submitted ideas in writing to the panel, which were put together in a book that was distributed to attendees (and is available here).

It was a good plan, but too ambitious: 22 presentations were slated for the two hours. It was clear halfway through the meeting that we were on pace for a 10 p.m. finish between presenters going long or the panel dwelling on a particular subject.

So organizers started placing absurd constraints on presenters. Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, flew in from Massachusetts to attend, and said he was asked to keep his presentation to 15 seconds. Everyone saved each other by grouping into like issues (i.e., all the girl offender advocates made one pitch), which is probably what should have happened from the outset.

Henning and Lynch provided some valuable insight from the panel, but it was the Jay Blitzman Show from question one. He must have started 90 percent of the panel responses, which was forgivable when you factored in his breadth of knowledge on the issues and his genuine excitement about JJ under Obama.

"I'm pumped, I am very pumped," Blitzman admitted with a smile when we asked him about his exuberance.

The Message

A few themes emerged from the meeting:

* Show Obama the [Saved] Money. By the second presentation, Ogletree had already heard three pleas for more funding at OJJDP. "The first thing I will tell him," Ogletree promised of a future conversation with Obama, "is we need more money."

He later tempered that promise with advice: "Cost savings will be the key to selling your program." That is probably the most important thing that was said during the session, a clear indication that the administration is open to using expected cost-savings down the road to rationalize spending on domestic programs today.

* Ogletree for OJJDP? The feeling by most people JJ Today has spoken with is that "Tree" is destined for a higher position than OJJDP administrator. But one audience member wondered if he might really want to focus on this stuff after watching him deftly control the meeting on Thursday.

Ogletree is clearly aware of the issues and is a key adviser and former teacher of Obama (at Harvard). That kind of direct access to the White House would be a big change for OJJDP. (Nobody suspects that President Bush and J. Robert Flores have regular dinner chats.)

* The Disproportionate Minority Contact requirement needs toughening. "It says ‘Address DMC ... but what does that mean?'" Judge Blitzman said of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act's core requirement on DMC.

The current situation is "shameful," said Ashley Nellis, a research analyst for The Sentencing Project. "In some states, [DMC] is worse than ever. It's completely unacceptable."

A starting point, Nellis said, would be to fill the DMC coordinator job at OJJDP, which has been vacant since March.

* After-care is essential. If there has been a facet of JJ left most unattended of late, Kristin Henning said, it is what juvenile justice systems do with kids coming back in from lockup. Obama can help address this, she says, by restoring OJJDP's block grants. Tim Briceland-Betts, co-director of Government Affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, later pointed out that the grants have dropped from a peak of $250 million annually to about $50 million.

* Make facility training mandatory, and pay for it. The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators worked with OJJDP in the mid-1990s to develop the Performance-based Standards program (PbS) to address overcrowding and other dangerous conditions at juvenile facilities. The program won the 2004 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's Ash Institute (which gave another juvenile justice project the top prize this year).

Today, only 200 of the 1,000 juvenile lockups (detention or prison) are involved in PbS, all on a volunteer basis. Loughran asked that the new administration consider making PbS participation mandatory, and help out with the estimated $13,000 per-site price tag for that venture.

* Get the ball rolling early. Nominations and confirmations can take awhile, Bilchik said in his closing remarks. The new administration should get an acting administrator into OJJDP as soon as possible, perhaps someone from within the current program staff at the agency. A number of them were in attendance at the meeting.