Weekly Notes: Tell OJJDP what you want out of TA; thoughts on LWOP cases, OJJDP@35 panel; Larry Steinberg, million-dollar man; and more

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***To anyone in the field who ever complained about the sort of training and technical assistance that’s provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: put up or shut up!

The agency has posted an open invitation for anyone in the juvenile justice community to complete an online needs assessment. The assessment, available here on the National Training and Technical Assistance website, takes about half an hour to complete, depending on your answers (certain responses open up a field of new follow-up questions).

Training and TA are a big part of what OJJDP does; this is a huge opportunity to tell leadership what the field wants.

***Thanks to everyone who made it to Youth Today’s OJJDP@35 event, where former administrators of OJJDP met to discuss their experiences at the top. A whole bunch of features from the event will be included on our OJJDP@35 website and in our December issue. For now, a few things that jumped out from the four hours of panel discussion (and a couple extra hours over beers after that):

--The Valid Court Order almost was never. The reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was all set to pass in 1980, with no valid court order (VCO) exception in it. For those who don’t know: VCOs allow judges, who cannot detain status offenders simply for the commission of a status offense, to enter actual court orders instructing those youths never to do it again. If they do, the judge can detain them pursuant to violation of the court order.

Then, President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, and barely any legislation passed for the rest of the year. And in an effort save the reauthorization bill from remaining dead in the water, former Rep. Ike Andrews (D-N.C.) flipped sides and supported the insertion of the valid court order. Reliving the experience, the typically-unflappable Robbie Callaway still looked genuinely angry about the way it all went down.

At the time, passing up a chance to reauthorize was not an option for advocates. Reagan would attempt to zero out OJJDP in his budget every year, so without a reauthorized bill who knows what would become of the federal leadership on JJ. But if judges had been barred from detaining truants, runaways and teen sex workers for the past 30 years, you would have to think a much more nuanced landscape for dealing with status offenders probably would be around today.

--It was clear from hearing the accounts of administrators from various eras that the relationship between the OJJDP administrator and his (all the administrators so far have been male) immediate superior, the assistant attorney general for justice programs, has never been spelled out in a way everyone can live with. Al Regnery freely admitted he did whatever he wanted with no approval; Bob Sweet chafed under the heavy hand of his boss, Jimmy Gurule. Shay Bilchik and Laurie Robinson had their battles over streamlining during the Clinton administration, and there was no love lost between Dubya-era administrator J. Robert Flores and his superior, Regina Schofield.

Some of this comes down to grant making: who ultimately makes the calls, and is everyone okay with the way it works? For comparative value, take the Family Youth Services Bureau, a division of the Administration on Children and Families at HHS. During the George W. Bush years, former commissioner Harry Wilson said, everyone was on the same page.

Wilson would make official recommendations on grants to his boss, Joan Ohl, who would spend hours picking through the awards with him. The majority of them were OK’d. The list went up to ACF boss Wade Horn, and all he really wanted to see was what high-scoring bids might have gotten skipped, and why?

The hope is that whoever runs OJJDP and newly sworn-in OJP boss Laurie Robinson, back for a second time, have a clear understanding and respect of each other’s roles when it comes to OJJDP activity.

--Not sure what’s worse: that so many administrators came in with no experience, or that so many left with no desire to stay engaged. Heard from more than one attendee that they fully intend to ask some of the former administrators to get involved in their JJ causes.

--Former administrator Bob Sweet: You would like the grant OJJDP made this fall to the D.C.-based Experience Corps. The corps plans to use its $2.7 million mentoring grant to pair very young children (K-3) with older mentors who will, among other things, tutor them in reading. This clearly remains a passionate cause for Sweet, who sees the absurdly high illiteracy rate among juvenile offenders as a cause of delinquency, not a symptom.

--Wait, so there was a time when Congressmen were just happy to have discretionary money go to their districts? They didn’t need to actually dictate which group got it? To a reporter whose first big assignment at Youth Today was to chart all of the federal earmarks, that sounds about as real as Narnia.

-- Al Regnery on the emergence of the missing children account, which is now mostly spent on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: The JJDPA statute is “pretty broad,” but at the time he knew “missing kids was somewhat outside of it, frankly.”

And why was this not a problem? Nobody would dare criticize spending on finding missing children, Regnery said from the stage, “so we got away with it.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars later, has anyone ever reviewed whether that program should be part of OJJDP’s work?

***The day before OJJDP@35, JJ Today was across town at the U.S. Supreme Court to check out oral arguments in the two Florida cases on juvenile life without parole (LWOP). We covered the straight news here, but here are a few additional thoughts :

--Dr. Laurence Steinberg (more on him in a minute) made a great point to JJ Today on the phone a few days after the arguments. Research on adolescent brain development was first introduced to the court during the Roper v. Simmons case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, but ultimately it was the prevailing trends among states and nations that swayed five judges. But this time, Steinberg noted, the justices really started from the generally accepted premise that adolescents are different. Whether that premise is enough to compel five justice or more to limit states rights is to be seen, but it says a lot about how much that research has taken hold.

--A ruling in favor of petitioner Terrance Graham would be way, way more impactful in terms of the sheer number of juvenile LWOP inmates affected right now than would a ruling that favored Joe Sullivan. There are about 110 doing life without parole for a non-homicide (most of them in Florida). There are only nine people doing LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were under 14.   

--To take it a step further – and we openly welcome your angry comments on this – there is an argument to be made that a court judgment in favor of Sullivan could harm the efforts of those would like to see LWOP ended for all juveniles, or for juveniles who don’t commit homicides.

When asked by the court what he wanted them to do, Sullivan’s attorney, Bryan Stevenson, proposed a ban on LWOP sentences on any juvenile under the age of 14, no matter what crime they are charged with. Sure, he also said he supports the request of Terence Graham to abolish LWOP in non-homicide cases, but that was beyond the scope of his request.

So let’s say the court does not rule in favor of Graham, but does rule for Sullivan. Now, a bright line has been drawn on LWOP, and it is at the age of 14. Could that harm the chances of a future attorney with a 16-year-old client who would like to challenge LWOP for 16-year-olds? Definitely. We heard more than once from the justices their displeasure at the thought of having to revisit LWOP again and again over categorical lines regarding age, offense or what would be considered the appropriate amount of time before parole was offered.

--There was interest expressed by some justices – particularly Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito – that a better solution would be for the court to require all states to consider age as a factor in handing down life without parole sentences. If that comes to pass, many states (including Florida) will need to develop a formal procedure to accomplish such a review.

We respectfully suggest they study New Mexico’s approach to adult sentences for juvenile offenders.

***JJ Today wanted to get comment on the courthouse steps from Steinberg, but he was in the middle of what appeared to be an intense photo shoot. Turns out, it was the New York Times shooting him for an honor that would be made public the next day: Steinberg is the first winner of the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize, which recognizes “excellent scientific achievements in the successful development of young people” and comes with a hefty $1 million award to do more research.

What will Steinberg do with the money? He said he won’t make the decision in haste. “My career is based on studying why some people make impulsive decisions in the face of a perceived high reward,” he joked.

Expect Steinberg to take the general theme of what he has established studying American youth, and seeing to what extent patterns in adolescent brain development can be generalized globally.

***Luzerne Update! The Juvenile Law Center, which made the state of Pennsylvania aware of Judge Mark Ciavarella’s heavy handed brand of justice before the feds stepped in, now wants to know if juveniles in other states feel they were wronged by the court system. The center has set up a website to that effect: www.jlc.org/shareyourstory

A few links to local media, which are all over this again now that the state supreme court has vacated the adjudications of thousands of youths who went before Ciavarella:.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter William Ecenbarger asks, Why? How?

The buck is being passed, Ecenbarger reports in another story.

In this story by WNEP reporter Sarah Buynovsky, the judge who reviewed the scandal says Ciavarella’s approach to cases was “so obviously on its face the wrong thing to do.”

Another court staffer has pleaded guilty in the scandal.

  • Dr. Edward Pabon

    A more interesting update to the Luzerne County Update might be that, in spite of all the testimonies at the hearings which exhorted all the changes being made, nothing has been done to change either at the parties involved in the situations or in allowing anyone outside of the system in. Everything is still secret as to the on-goings in the Luzerne juvenile justice system. In fact, the President Judge made the statement that the number of juveniles being placed is no longer public. It was made public, however, that a local mental health agency was given a contract to assist youngsters and parents caught in the scandal. However, the agency has no contact or any experience with juvenile justice cases, but is politically connected to the same politicals in the scandal. The probation supervisor involved in the system during the scandal is now the chief juvenile probation officer. Little change but a lot of fantasy.