Weekly Notes: PROMISE Act on the move; Juvenile sex offender stats; Funds for reentry work; and more

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***The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, and it is easy to see why Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) is being cautious about advancing his legislation. The bill made it out of markup unscathed by a 17-14 vote, but not without a bizarre attempt to stick it with the sort of get-tough caveat that Scott is committed to avoiding.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), one of the 232 co-sponsors of the PROMISE Act, proposed an amendment that would establish the following penalties on members of a “criminal street gang,” which he defines as a group of three or more individuals who commit more than two gang crimes (violence, robbery, obstruction, drug dealing, etc):

* For a crime resulting in death, a sentence of death or life in prison

* For kidnapping, aggravated sex abuse or maiming, minimum of 30 years

* For a crime resulting in serious bodily injury, minimum of 20 years

* For any other conviction, minimum of 10 years.

Nowhere in the amendment does Forbes state he intends these penalties only for youth, but you have to think his intention was to include them; after all, it is the Youth PROMISE Act. Was he not aware that the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in cases involving juveniles four years ago?

Forbes’ proposed penalties are in some ways steeper than those included in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Gang Abatement Act, and Scott has expressed little interest in finding a compromise between his and Feinstein’s bills. The companion to the PROMISE Act in the Senate – submitted by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) – now has only two fewer co-sponsors than does Feinstein’s bill.

The amendment was killed because it was not “in order” with the legislation. Another amendment by Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) did make it into the bill, and it would require a newly-created Center on Youth-Oriented Policing to “develop, compile, and disseminate to youth-oriented police … information about the ‘stop-snitching’ culture pervasive in many communities in the United States and tactics to counter such culture.”

The PROMISE Act will be referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor, which controls legislation related to juvenile justice. But don’t expect movement anytime soon. Because PROMISE amends the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), it only makes sense that the reauthorization of JJDPA will come first at Education/Labor. And while the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider its JJDPA bill next week, there has been almost no movement toward reauthorization on the House side.

***A few publications of note that were recently released:

OJJDP 2010 Program Plan

Obviously, much of what the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) does is driven by what Congress funds it to do. But this is the agency’s presentation of its own wish list for the coming year. JJ Today cannot find such a document for any year since 2002, before Bush-era administrator J. Robert Flores was confirmed.

It’s a quick read at 13 pages, and the agency is asking for public comment on the plan. Among the proposals: projects to help programs treat children exposed to violence; a model training and technical assistance program for juvenile defense attorneys; a National Girls Institute that would evaluate gender-specific services for girls in the JJ system; and the Reducing Community Violence program, modeled after Operation CEASEFIRE in Chicago.

Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors

This got absolutely no coverage in the media, but OJJDP published a bulletin that for the first time provided hard numbers about juvenile sex offenders. They account for 25 percent of all sex offenders, according to the bulletin, and one-third of all offenders known by police to have committed sex offenses against minors. Other findings that distinguish juvenile offenders from adults: They are far more likely to act in a group, commit an offense against an acquaintance and offend against a male victim.

 It’s a little disappointing that there was nothing in here about re-arrests, or at least self-reported continuance of offenses. A singular sex offense by a juvenile offender is not a good predictor of future sex offending, as University of Toronto Professor Howard Barnabee explained to us in a 2007 piece about implementation of the Adam Walsh Act. It would have been interesting to know how much more (or less) often adults were picked up again for new offenses as compared to juveniles.

Meanwhile, Ohio is the only state in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, writes Associated Press reporter Greg Bluestein.

Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs

A report done for OJJDP by Sarah Pearson, the deputy director for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership (although actually, she did the work on behalf of her old employer, American Youth Policy Forum.) Federal money for tribal youth programs is available from both OJJDP and the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at the Department of Health and Human Services, and this report looks at the experiences and successes of five tribal youth programs. The gist: Youth and community members report that the programs help teens avoid negative behavior and improve school performance. Program leaders report that they could do a better job if federal funding agencies coordinated tribal youth efforts better, and gave grants over a longer period of time (five- or ten-year grant cycles).

OJJDP and SAMHSA do have a prototype now for synthesizing similar grants. Both agreed to put out juvenile drug court funding for 2009 in one single solicitation, meaning you either got funded by both agencies or by neither.

***The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by Charles Lane this week in which Lane wonders whether the horrific killing of the four police officers in Seattle will affect the juvenile life without parole (LWOP) cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in the killing (who was himself killed by police officers on Dec. 2), was granted clemency after 11 years in prison. Clemmons was 17 when he committed a string of crimes that landed him behind bars, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) decision to commute the sentence had everything to do with Clemmons’ age at the time of the crimes.

Lane believes this could affect the justices’ analysis of Graham v Florida, in which attorneys for Terrance Graham are asking that the court deem LWOP sentences unconstitutional in cases of juveniles convicted of non-homicides.

JJ Today can think of two reasons that this case should not factor into Graham. First, the very reason Huckabee felt moved to pardon Clemmons was because he was 17 and got 108 years in prison, which is basically like getting life without parole. Had there been a more rational sentencing guideline applied to a juvenile offender at the time, Clemmons’ sentence might have had an actual chance for a parole hearing during his natural life. And if that was the case, Huckabee might not have felt clemency was necessary.

Second, during the oral arguments on Graham, the justices seemed far more interested in the practicality of imposing a bright line on the subject than on the morality. If the court rules against Graham, it will more likely be because the majority of the justices believe that factoring age into juvenile sentences should be done at the time of sentencing and not decades later at parole hearings.

***Funding is available for Offender Reentry Programs from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. SAMHSA is looking for grantees that can provide “substance abuse treatment and related recovery and reentry services to sentenced juvenile and adult offenders returning to the community from incarceration for criminal/juvenile offenses.’

Pretty much any organization or public agency can apply, and the deadline just got extended to Feb. 2. The maximum grant award is expected to be $400,000, but that figure is based on projects from the president’s budget requests for 2010.

***Some JJ stories from around the country:

--The Victor Cullen Center was supposed to be a centerpiece of JJ reform in Maryland. But recidivism rates for youth who have stayed at the center are staggeringly high, reports Brian Witte of the Associated Press.

--A whistleblower has prompted an investigation of conditions at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex.

--Florida State Rep. William Snyder, in a column published on TCPalm.com, says the Supreme Court needs to let states handle the calls on life without parole.

***An advocacy group in Virginia is asking state legislators to put power back in the hands of judges when it comes to moving juveniles into adult court, says Daily Progress reporter Tasha Kates. The full report by the advocacy group, JustChildren, can be found here.

***Officials in Bibb County, Ga. believe their $4 million investment in a new, stand-alone juvenile court building will help change the way the county deals with youth in trouble and in crisis, reports Macon.com’s Mike Stucka.

***Wyoming legislators may finally pass some laws that codify juvenile justice practices in the state, writes Tribune-Eagle reporter Michael Van Cassell, which would bring some much-needed sanity to a state that basically amounts to the JJ Wild West.