Another OJJDP Candidate: Jane Tewksbury

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California judge and former prosecutor Kurt Kumli was the only name that had reached  JJ Today from the recent round of interviews by the Justice Department of Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention candidates. But it appears that Jane Tewksbury, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, has interviewed for the job, too,  and is at least as likely as Kumli to get the nomination.

Sources close to Tewksbury said that, like Kumli, she is committed to going becoming OJJDP administrator if she is the Obama administration’s choice.

Tewksbury, by any measure, is a well-rounded candidate. She has served as commissioner of DYS since 2005, which for a modern state-level JJ director is a lifetime. Tewksbury was nominated by then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) but was kept on by current Gov. Deval Patrick (D).

Before that, Tewksbury was a prosecutor (assistant district attorney in Middlesex County), and followed her boss Scott Harshbarger (D) to Boston when he became Attorney General in 1990. Later, she served as chief of staff to Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Edward Flynn in 2003.

Tewksbury is also plugged into the national juvenile justice landscape. She was a fellow in the Children and Family Fellowship of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1993, organized the Massachusetts’  recent entry in Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and is currently the treasurer of the board for the Council of Juvenile Court Administrators (CJCA).

“If Jane is a top candidate for this job, they could do no better,” said Shay Bilchik, who heads Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and served as administrator of OJJDP during much of the Clinton administration. “She believes deeply in a rehabilitative model. With her history as prosecutor, she understands the need to ensure public safety. She knows the issues, knows the science and understands the challenges in the field.”

In Massachusetts, Tewksbury’s reputation appears to be one of a leader who welcomes debate and dialogue from outside DYS. The major function of DYS is to serve juveniles in secure and residential placements, so Tewksbury gets big points from reform-minded advocates for supporting efforts to detain fewer youths before trial and keep more DYS-remanded juveniles in the community.

“I don’t think we’ve always seen eye-to-eye, but she has always been open to discussions and we’ve always been in an easy relationship that way, which I’m not sure all advocates would say about their commissioner,” said Lael Chester, executive director of the Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a state advocacy group. Then again, not every advocate works for a group that was founded by the commissioner of the very agency it watchdogs; Tewksbury helped set up CFJJ in the mid-1990s.

“I guess [DYS] is supposed to be our enemy in a way, but frankly I don’t have anything bad to say about her or her staff,” said Josh Dohan, director of the Boston-based Youth Advocacy Project, the juvenile defender unit of Massachusetts’ statewide public defense network. “She has been the strongest voice in the state pushing to be careful about who gets committed and to correct the disproportionate minority contact” in Massachusetts’ system.

Two other notes about Tewksbury vis-à-vis her potential at OJJDP:

She is by all accounts an excellent speaker. This can’t be discounted, because the hope in the JJ field is certainly that the administrator will add vocal and public authenticity to the research and advocacy work that has built up over the past decade.

OJJDP has kept the trains running on time pretty well during the Obama administration (reports published, grants awarded fairly), but there has not been a lot of persuasion on juvenile justice. It took forever for the administration to support the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, for example, and then it was really only on paper.

-At each point in her career, including DYS, she has been a person of significant influence without really being the top dog. DYS is a division of the state’s Office of Health and Human Services, so Tewksbury is an immediate subordinate of Secretary Judyann Bigby.

“She knows how to play her role on the team,” said Dohan. “She is expected to lead, but within parameters.”

That matters with the OJJDP job, because Justice hierarchy is akin to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The OJJDP administrator is a Senate-confirmed leader overseeing a sizable agency within another sizable agency (the Office of Justice Programs) that has its own Senate-confirmed boss, in this case Laurie Robinson. And at Office of Justice Programs, Robinson takes her cues from Attorney General Eric Holder. So when it comes to running OJJDP, it probably helps to have been in a situation where you have led while being led.

“You have to manage the people you’re working for while they manage you,” Dohan said. “I don’t mean that in a manipulative way either. Most good people don’t want someone that’s just a yes person.”