John Kline and Juvenile Justice

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***The midterm elections brought a power shift to the House of Representatives, which means that a Republican-led Education and Labor Committee will decide the fate of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) reauthorization in the 112th Congress. 

It is hard to pinpoint when the air went out of the reauthorization balloon in the 111th Congress. If JJ Today had to pick one point, it would be around Memorial Day, when many an advocate felt confident that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, was about to introduce a reauthorization bill. The Senate Judiciary had again introduced and passed its own version.

Then … nothing. In a podcast interview with the staff of the Campaign for Youth Justice, Miller reiterated his interest in reauthorization. But no bill ever materialized.

Miller controls the committee for another two months and change. The chances of ramming through the JJDPA in the lame-duck session, which is usually pretty dormant legislation-wise, are pretty slim. More likely, the future of House reauthorization lies with Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who is expected to become chairman of Education and Labor in January.

So what do we know about Kline vis-à-vis juvenile justice policy? Two words: not much.

Kline is a states-rights Republican who wants to see as much local control as possible over domestic policy. He has been an outspoken critic of the way No Child Left Behind Act works. President Obama’s Race to the Top program draws his ire because it forces states that take the money to adopt common standards, which Kline sees as small step toward a national curriculum. His press statement following Tuesday's elections indicates that his youth policy priority is to significantly overhaul NLCB. 

When it comes to juveniles, Kline’s record is pretty bare. Miller hasn’t gotten a JJDPA bill up for committee vote; that might have revealed Kline’s position on the bill and some of its major provisions. But as it stands, the public record on Kline includes two pretty innocuous entries, both from April of 2010.

Kline attended an Education and Labor hearing that month on juvenile justice reform, and questioned fellow Minnesotan Michael Belton, who testified about Ramsey County’s efforts to address disproportionate minority contact as participants in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). Belton recommended that the committee beef up the DMC requirements through JJDPA reauthorization.

Kline later asked Belton:

 “You expressed concern – I believe you said little progress can be made if Congress doesn't strengthen the DMC core requirements. And yet you made great progress without that strengthening. Why do you think that other places can't do what you have done? I know they are not all Minnesotans, but why do you think that we need this federal legislation in order to get other people to exercise the same sort of initiative that you and the system in Minnesota has taken?”

A fair question from a guy whose policy view is to ask “why?” more often than “why not?” when it comes to placing requirements on states. On the other hand, you’re talking about one county policing a fairly pervasive social problem, so it’s a little like asking why baseball should test all major league teams for steroids just because on particular team did such a good job testing its own roster.

Belton responded to that effect, saying that Ramsey was an exception rather than the rule when it comes to DMC:

“We happen to be fortunate to have had the opportunity to become a JDAI jurisdiction about five  years ago. And JDAI handed us the tools and the language and the framework to begin this work. And we became a JDAI county because we were concerned about Minnesota's – and in Ramsey County, because we were a major contributor – Minnesota's horrible, shameful disproportionality.”

Also in April, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), whose district is adjacent to Kline’s, made a few headlines back home by securing earmarks that went to organizations in Kline’s district. Among them: $500,000 to Dakota County for its JDAI initiative, the first earmark for a JDAI project that JJ Today has ever come across. Kline and a number of other Republicans refused to participate in the earmark process last year.

“Congressman Kline’s refusal to assist in securing federal funds for these important community projects is unfortunate,” McCollum’s spokesperson, Maria Reppas, told the Minnesota Independent in April. “By not taking earmarks, he’s only depriving Minnesota tax payers from getting a portion of their fair share of government services.”

For the JJ field, we would submit that Kline’s dislike of earmarks can only be a good thing. There are plenty of singularly good projects, like Dakota County JDAI, amongst the list of pork appropriated by Congress each year out of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) discretionary account. But each year earmarks eat up most or all of the agency’s discretionary pot, and the net effect is that OJJDP is left with scarce dollars to attempt any coherent and larger-scale demonstrations. 

We asked Kline’s staff if he might care to discuss his views on JJDPA reauthorization, or the version of reauthorization that has passed through the Senate Judiciary committee. Not interested, came the reply.

“We don’t even have control yet,” said Alexa Marrero, communications director for the Education and Labor Committee Republicans. “It would be premature to get into any legislative proposals.”  

A strange position to take, considering Kline gave a candid interview on education reform to Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle on education policy three weeks before the midterm elections.

“When we come back for the 112th Congress, we have to fix No Child Left Behind,” Kline told Biddle in October.

On JJDPA reauthorization, one thing we cannot imagine Kline embracing is the phase-out of the valid court order exception, which is a major provision of the Senate reauthorization bill. Removing a local judge’s ability to make certain decisions does not seem in line with the ideology of a congressman who wants to lessen the role of federal government in local policy.