Three Candidates for OJJDP

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[Note: This piece also appears in the Obama Job Watch in Youth Today's Latest News section]

The scuttlebutt points to two widely-known candidates and one wild card: Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS); David Onek, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and a member of the San Francisco Police Commission; and Illinois State Rep. Annazette Collins (D). The latter two names carry significant credentials, but the sense we get is that many in the field believe Schiraldi to be the strongest candidate.

"I think Vinny Schiraldi and David Onek are both committed juvenile justice reformers who will lead OJJDP in a new and better direction," says Dan Macallair, who co-founded the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) with Schiraldi in 1985 (Onek briefly consulted with CJCJ). "However, I think that Vinny's experience clearly renders him the stronger candidate."

Vincent Schiraldi

When Youth Today asked juvenile justice professionals in September what the résumé of an OJJDP administrator should look like, the responses indicated a desire for someone who has run a system. That is why many juvenile justice professionals have quietly offered themselves up as references for Schiraldi. He has the reformer and agitator background from his days at CJCJ and the Justice Policy Institute, and the practitioner experience from his current Washington job.

"He is one of a handful of people who can translate research and literature so it's relevant for policymakers and the public," says one former colleague.

Schiraldi left the Justice Policy Institute in 2005 to run DYRS, where he put together a team of people who, like him, had been on the advocacy side of juvenile justice. The staff at DYRS includes David Brown, former executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, and Marc Schindler, who was a staff attorney for the Washington office of the Youth Law Center (now the Center for Children's Law and Policy).

"I'm a big fan of Vinny Schiraldi. I think he's terrific," said Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown Law School and board chair of the National Center for Youth Law.

It has been fascinating to follow Schiraldi's time at DYRS. He is regularly heralded in juvenile justice circles for quickly turning Oak Hill, truly one of the most disastrous and abusive juvenile correctional facilities in the nation, into a functional place. The agency plans to unveil a new facility, which will be smaller and offer a far better environment for developing youth early this year.

But DYRS, and Schiraldi in particular, drew a powerful enemy in Washington Post columnist Colbert King. Over the past year, King has used his op-ed space to hammer DYRS on what he sees as a failure to supervise youth not in Oak Hill custody - some of whom committed more crimes, some of whom were killed - and an inability to prevent violence at Oak Hill. The police department sometimes disagrees with DYRS statistics that the agency says point to progress on reducing recidivism.

David Onek                                                                                                                                                                                                   

David Onek's name rings bells in the Democratic Party. His father, Joseph Onek, is senior counsel to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and served at the departments of Justice and State during the Clinton administration.

But Onek is a far cry from a "Heckuva-Job Brownie" type of appointment. His résumé includes stops at research and advocacy organizations (the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Burns Institute) and at Legal Services for Children, a Bay Area nonprofit providing legal services to youth.

"I have stood shoulder to shoulder with him defending kids," said Lateefah Simon, former executive director for San Francisco's Center for Young Women's Development, who met Onek when he worked for Legal Services for Children. "He gets it, and he's good with them, and he's spent a lot of his life figuring out how to translate that to policy."

"He's very bright and committed to young people," says Barry Krisberg, president of the national council, for whom Onek worked on development and early implementation of an OJJDP-funded comprehensive strategy for pilot sites. "He's very knowledgeable about OJJDP."

Onek also served as deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, working under Director Allen Nance. The rap from some in the San Francisco's juvenile justice network is that, with his heart in the right place, Onek attempted to restructure the juvenile justice contracts that the city had with nonprofits around the best practices promoted by OJJDP.

But he "didn't pay enough attention to the service delivery and existing structure" in place, says one person close to the city's system. Some organizations lost grants that they were accustomed to getting.

The other view is that Onek and Nance, along with Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bill Sifferman, were attempting to refocus the city's juvenile justice money on kids who were actually in the system, as opposed to funding prevention work. That rattled the boat for lots of community organizations that were accustomed to receiving money from the mayor's office for violence prevention.

Those organizations chased the money for programs that had little to do with prevention work, lost, and raised Hell until the mayor had to tell Nance and Onek to restore some of the old contracts for a year.

The restructuring "came down in a clumsy way," said Bruce Fisher, executive director of Huckleberry House, one of the city's largest providers of juvenile justice services. He believes Nance and Sifferman were the ones intent on shaking things up without involving CBOs in the planning.

Gena Rodriguez, executive director of San Francisco's Youth Justice Institute, disagrees. "I would say the process was inclusive. It really looked at what evolving needs were, with lots of broad input from the field and community."

Either way, Fisher says, Onek took more heat than he deserved because he was the one who had to execute the plan that Nance and Sifferman crafted. "Blaming David is like blaming the messenger," Fisher said.

The guess here is that a move to OJJDP is hardly a no-brainer for Onek. He grew up in Washington, but he and his wife, Kara (daughter of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis), have settled on the West Coast with their two children.

Then again, the couple is also excited about the new administration: They were early supporters of, and threw three fundraisers for, Obama, the first of which was in June of 2007.

"David is really very well-qualified for a number of jobs that relate to justice," Edelman says.

Annazette Collins

Another wild-card candidate we've heard about is Illinois State Rep. Annazette Collins (D), who has her fingerprints all over juvenile justice reform in the state. Collins has represented the west side of Chicago since 2001, and served on the Transfer Task Force that ultimately removed a law that had ushered scores of youths from the Windy City into adult court for relatively light drug charges. She co-sponsored the bill that raised the state's age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, and the bill that created a state juvenile justice agency that is separate from its adult corrections system.

"It would be difficult to find an adjective to describe her persistence in making sure juveniles are treated differently than adults in Illinois," said Mary Reynolds, policy analyst for the Springfield-based Juvenile Justice Initiative. "She would be a dynamo" at OJJDP.

Collins has practitioner experience as well. She was a public administrator in the Illinois  Department of Children and Families and in the Cook County Probation Department, and served as a prison correctional officer.