State juvenile justice leaders find staff at the federal juvenile justice office helpful, though slow to respond at times, and the officials bemoan the dwindling resources flowing to states from the federal office.
These are findings of a survey conducted by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which was released this week. The coalition polled state-designated juvenile justice specialists in each state and six territories about the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The results, presented in a report titled A Pivotal Moment, indicate that most states value the work done by OJJDP but feel its influence is compromised by its decreasing budget.
"The sky is not falling, but the ground beneath is not as firm as it used to be," said CJJ Deputy Executive Director Tara Andrews, summarizing the sentiments of states about work on JJDPA compliance at a panel discussion following announcement of the report.
The survey asked respondents about their level of satisfaction with the federal agency's staff and funding in regard to helping states comply with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.
Labor Day marked the 35th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The act is overdue for reauthorization, and a bill that would do so has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
The act requires states to comply with juvenile justice standards pertaining to four core principles: deinstitutionalization of youth who are status offenders; keeping all youth who are not tried as adults from placement in adult lockups; separating juveniles tried as adults from adult jail populations; and addressing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system (disproportionate minority contact, or DMC).
Most states gave some credit to OJJDP staff for their work with states on compliance. On a scale of one to 10, 78 percent of states officials gave the federal office a five or higher for "communications with states to explain compliance mandates." And 42 percent of respondents said that the time it takes OJJDP to respond has shortened over the past five years.
Those responses are noteworthy, because the money given to OJJDP to administer such assistance has drastically decreased this decade. In 2002, the office received $6.8 million to carry out JJDPA-related operations, according to CJJ. By 2008 that budget was $680,000, and in 2009 no direct allocation paid for OJJDP's work on compliance.
"States were less critical of OJJDP than we thought," said CJJ Executive Director Nancy Gannon Hornberger.
The criticism was mostly directed at Congress for approving increasingly lower levels of funding for state juvenile justice grants, and then eating up those lower appropriations with pet projects. The formula grants going to states have decreased from $88.8 million in 2002 to $75 million in 2009, according to the report.
When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how cuts to state formula grants had affected work on compliance, 69 percent of respondents rated the significance of the cuts between a five and a 10.
"We can't fund as many local programs, especially in rural communities," wrote one state in its reply (the names of all responding to the survey were kept private). "More funds would allow for more non-secure placements, thus giving our judges alternatives for detaining runaway youth who endanger themselves."
The "Title V" grants, which go to state advisory groups created in part to redirect those funds for programs that would help states achieve compliance, have declined from $94.3 million to $62 million this year. Only $2 million of that gets to the advisory groups, the report said, because congressmen earmark the rest of those dollars for programs not related to JJDPA.
Grants to tribal communities, the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program and Enforcement of Underage Drinking Laws (EUDL) have all been folded into Title V since their independent authorization expired. Only one state out of 38 that responded to survey questions about Title V grants said it received more than $75,000.
Instead of state advisory groups receiving a couple million dollars to carry out a statewide initiative or pilot project, said CJJ Deputy Executive Director Tara Andrews, "they now only have money for maybe one $30,000 project."
Tino Cuellar, who is on President Barack Obama's domestic policy council, was a member of the panel discussing the report. Cuellar, who also helped the White House quietly organize a day-long gang conference in August with a small invitation list of mostly mayors and police chiefs, said the administration could be a convener on juvenile justice issues this year.
"There are two things happening in Washington," Cuellar said of juvenile justice. "The police, prosecutors, ministers and community groups," advocating for change, and "Congress, holding hearings. We have to figure out how to connect [the two groups]."
Biggest problem: status offenders
Among the other findings from the survey:
*States were asked which of the four core requirements of JJDPA posed the greatest challenge to maintaining compliance, and 44 percent reported the deinstitutionalization of status offenders. While the conventional wisdom is that states actually have the hardest time with the issue of disproportionate minority contact, Andrews and Hornberger said that actually complying with the DMC standards is not all that difficult.
Training for judges and court staff were the most frequently listed methods as useful resources for obtaining compliance, which lines up with comments from some states indicating that courts had been abusing an exception to the rules preventing judges from locking up status offenders.
*States reported a fast turnaround on their requests for technical assistance, but some reported long waits for answers on compliance audits. Seventy-one percent of respondents said technical assistance requests were answered within a month. Twelve states said they asked for guidance on an audit; five waited between one and six months, and three waited between six months to a year for a response from OJJDP.
*Nearly two-thirds of responding states and territories said they were currently working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).
*The 29 states that responded to survey questions about state formula grants paint a blurry picture about the use of those funds. Three states reported using 100 percent of the grant to support JJDPA compliance, and 12 reported using more than half the funds for compliance. Five states reported using none of the state formula grant money to support compliance.
The report is available online here.