Down to the Wire for OJJDP Job


One of the hopefuls for the OJJDP top job whose candidacy heated up over the summer was Miami-Dade County JJ boss Wansley Walters, who has overseen a complete overhaul of a system that handles the eighth largest county in the nation. Walters was in Washington this week for another interview with administration officials, and all indications are that filling the OJJDP position is now at least on the radar at the Department of Justice. 

Along with Walters, JJ Today knows of three other candidates who appear to be in the mix:

-Vinny Schiraldi, director of DC's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).

-David Onek, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice in California.

-Stuart Simms, an attorney who ran the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services from 1995 to 1997.

Of those, we know that Walters has been interviewed by Justice officials, and Schiraldi will be.

If they are, in fact, the final four, one would have to say the administration has put together a respectable set of options. Walters and Schiraldi currently run big-city systems, and both already have some national recognition; Schiraldi for his work in advocacy, Walters because a number of states and counties have come to Miami to study its model during her tenure.

Onek is well connected politically in Washington, and that is not in and of itself a bad thing. One huge issue for any new OJJDP boss will be how much Congress handcuffs his/her discretionary funds with earmarks and set-asides. Onek might be the candidate with enough juice with congressional leadership to change that. 

Simms, who JJ Today knows the least about, has experience on the prosecutorial side and has run a state system. Then again, Matthew Joseph, executive director of Maryland's Advocates for Children and Youth, said his organization viewed the Maryland juvenile justice system that Secretary Simms left behind as "catastrophically dysfunctional."

Harsh! We asked JDAI chief Bart Lubow, who knows a thing or two about juvenile justice and Maryland's system in particular, if that was accurate. The answer: it was dysfunctional, probably not completely Simms' fault, and all of it is totally irrelevant to the debate of who should run OJJDP.

"There is only one obvious and appropriate choice to head OJJDP (among those who've expressed interest) and that's Schiraldi," said Lubow, one of a handful of people in the field who is overtly supporting a candidate. "Anyone else will be an opportunity missed and evidence that juvenile justice can't expect much from this new administration."

Schiraldi remains the favorite of many national JJ leaders. But politically, there is an enormous albatross hanging around his neck in the form of the Washington Post's Saturday opinion page. Post columnist Colby King has spent the better part of a year using his weekend column space to criticize the behavior of DYRS. Actually, "criticize" is underselling the thrust of his work: King blames a number of homicides in the city on DYRS, which he believes has failed to properly supervise juveniles who are not confined at the DYRS facility in Laurel, Md.

JJ Today reads King's columns regularly. Our take: King makes good points, and is genuine in his concern for public safety. But the columns lack a "time" perspective. That agency was dysfunctional forever and cycled through directors pretty much annually. If you looked back at previous years, would you find that juveniles supervised by DYRS were killing and being killed before Schiraldi started his reforms? Of course you would. And he didn't get to hire every person that currently works for DYRS.

Anyway, some in the Schiraldi camp believe those columns have torpedoed his chances at OJJDP, and not just for the columns King has already written. What would King do if Schiraldi's work at DYRS earned him the top job in juvenile justice? The end product, some fear, would be an easy line of attack for Republicans who might like to see an Obama nominee go down in flames.

One thing that could save Schiraldi on this count: an absolute, out-of-the-park home run of a response in the Post. The administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty had not engaged King in any sort of public discourse until recently, when it allowed Schiraldi's chief of health services, Andrea Weisman, to respond to King's column about DYRS's prescription of a psychotropic drug called Seroquel (read Weisman's response here). A response from Schiraldi at some point could help him, if Fenty's people allow him to write it.

There is still no telling when all this gets resolved by the way. As of August, the administration had only announced its intention to nominate Robinson to lead Office of Justice Programs, OJJDP's parent agency. Her name still hasn't been sent to Capitol Hill for confirmation. Still, it's probable that Robinson's process will be completed before nominees are slotted in underneath her.