Would JJDPA Reforms Put Too Much Work on States?

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The 15-member committee tasked with the Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform project met for the first time this week in Washington, and for two days of presentations on the public and private efforts to monitor and change juvenile justice practices in the 50 states.

On the first day, they got a fairly sobering view from state JJ experts on the reality of state compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, now and going forward.

JJ Today attended the second session of the first day, when the committee heard from three speakers about the state perspective on Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention compliance monitoring: Nancy Gannon Hornberger of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Joe Vignati of the Georgia Governor’s Office for Children and Families and Susan Davis of the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

All three lauded the training and technical assistance aspects of OJJDP’s work as high-quality and field-informed. Hornberger mostly spoke about the coalition’s survey of juvenile justice specialists about OJJDP, in which most specialists gave OJJDP staff high marks but said that lack of funding from the agency had impeded efforts to comply and support programs.

The 20 states that receive a minimum allocation through the OJJDP formula funds now only get $600,000. Funds for alternatives to detention such as emergency foster care and shelters, “have dried up,” Hornberger said. Without such alternatives, she said, judges are more likely to detain status offenders who come before them for running away.

Davis mostly took the committee through the compliance process, and highlighted some recent successes in Colorado that were a direct result of compliance monitoring. She also brought up two things that a number of states should be aware of:

-The challenge posed to juvenile justice standards by the rules for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is allowed to detain anyone they take into custody for 48 hours before they see a courtroom, Davis pointed out, while JJDPA standards say only 24 hours before court.

-The fact that judges who are adamant about using the valid court order to detain status offenders could affect a state’s OJJDP allocation if the VCO exception is phased out over three years. That phase-out is included in the JJDPA reauthorization awaiting introduction on the Senate floor.

 “They don’t care what happens, they’re still going to use it,” Davis said of her conversations with a few judges.

If there is no VCO exception, the judges’ continued practice of detaining status offenders would raise a state’s total detention number, and if that number is high enough, the state would be out of compliance. It would take just a few judges determined to detain status offenders to cost a state 20 percent of their already-dwindling pot of federal juvenile justice money.

Vignati delivered an at times harsh critique of the current relationship between OJJDP and the states. At some point in 2007, he told the committee, “the tenor of the relationship changed.”

You can read his entire testimony here, but his basic points were: 

-- OJJDP compliance staff do not gauge compliance in the states uniformly, which means one state could be out of compliance with the same numbers and information that another staff member might view to be compliant.

-- There is a potential conflict of interest because OJJDP can use the funds forfeited by noncompliant states for other projects.

-- The agency has pushed for a wider universe of facilities to be monitored for compliance, while the federal funds that pay for monitoring have dropped sharply.

Vignati told the committee that because of the declining funding, “some of these states are at a point, given all the new expectations from the Office, that it may not be worth their effort to continue to participate in the Act. That is very troubling to me and it should be a concern for the entire panel.”

That states are talking about the value of participating in the act raised some eyebrows of the committee members, and drew some stern looks from OJJDP compliance staff in the room.

Acting OJJDP Administrator Jeff Slowikowski acknowledged that, “In this economic climate, many states are faced with difficult decisions.  It is challenging for most states to balance the reduced formula funding over the past decade with the expectations that remain for compliance with the JJDP Act core requirements.”

“The good news is that with sufficient support from the staff of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and through training and technical assistance support offered through OJJDP, not one state has had to opt out of participation in the JJDP Act,” Slowikowski said.

But JJ Today has confirmed that officials in at least three minimum-allocation states have discussed whether to continue to participate in JJDPA.

While advocates see provisions in the reauthorized JJDPA as progress – possible phase out of the VCO exception, perhaps new requirements on disproportionate minority contact and new requirements about mental health services – state monitors often see them mainly as new things to monitor.

The reauthorization in its current Senate form also would increase greatly the authorization to the states. Regardless, if they participate, states will have to monitor progress on any new requirements. But congressional appropriations are not beholden to authorization and Congress can choose to increase the appropriation or stay at the same funding level.

The discussions at the project meeting made clear that the states need an infusion of cash to help them implement new rules and monitor existing ones, and still have some money left to fund delinquency prevention programs.

The worst case is, reauthorization passes but Congress gives no new money, and state monitoring teams are saddled with more work, and states getting the minimum allocation of $600,000 start bailing on JJPDA participation.

When it comes to the principles of the JJPDA requirements, and the new proposals in the reauthorization, there is a lot of support. But there is a growing gap, it would appear in some states, between the expectations put on compliance teams to patrol progress and their financial ability to get it done.