Obama Plan Makes Juvenile Justice Compliance the Basis, Not the Reason, for Federal Funding

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The Justice Department’s first public statement on the juvenile justice plan proposed in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget suggests that states with a track record on reform would be in pole position for federal funding while other states might not even get to the starting line.  

In a statement released late yesterday, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention told Youth Today that Obama’s “Race to the Top-style” plan for 2012 juvenile justice funding is designed to reward “states that demonstrate the highest achievement in key juvenile justice reforms.”

The minimal details of the plan released in the president’s budget brought immediate criticism from some juvenile justice advocates.

The $120 million Juvenile Justice System Incentive Grants would replace the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants and the Formula Grants, which are awarded to each state contingent upon its compliance with four requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act:

Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders: Juvenile judges may not incarcerate juveniles who are found to have committed status offenses, a litany of actions that would not be considered crimes if the offenders were adults (truancy, incorrigibility, running away, etc.).
Jail Removal: Incarcerated juveniles may not be locked up or held in adult jails or prisons, with rare exceptions.
Sight and Sound Separation: In the rare instances in which juveniles may be held in an adult facility, they must be kept out of sight and sound of adult inmates.
Disproportionate Minority Contact: States must attempt to assess and address differences in the ways minority youth are treated by the juvenile justice system.

Adherence to those basic standards would become the threshold even to compete for most federal juvenile justice funding. States must show “a record of compliance with the core requirements of the [JJDPA],” including a “record of meaningful state-wide efforts aimed at reducing the disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system,” according to the statement from OJJDP.

The original language on the plan in Obama’s budget had some juvenile justice advocates asking whether a state would have to have been fully compliant in the year previous to the incentive grant competition in order to qualify. The statement suggests that a state with a “history” of being fully compliant with JJDPA might compete even if it had a recent blemish on its record.

But “unlike the existing formula grant distribution of funds,” the statement said, the incentive grants would reward states that “go beyond minimal compliance with basic mandates.”

The statement suggests that the administration now views the JJDPA requirements as a competency standard and that federal funding should largely be reserved for states want to take on progressive development to a state system. It also indicates that states who have already accomplished some changes will be looked upon favorably. These are among the factors, laid out in the statement, that OJJDP would take into consideration when it reviews proposals for the grants:

* The development and use of validated risk assessment tools to determine and implement alternatives to detention and reduce unnecessary prosecutions and detention.

* Employment of diversion strategies, which might include adoption of family and juvenile problem-solving courts, administrative sanctions, alternative dispute resolution, community-based responses and other alternatives for low-level juvenile offenders.

* Fact based improvement of outcomes for youth in the system including recidivism of youth in the system.

* Proof of meaningful statewide and local collaboration of juvenile justice stakeholders.

Critics of the president’s plan say that it jeopardizes the participation of some states in the JJDPA. Many state governments use some combination of the formula money and accountability block grants to pay for the staff who ensure compliance with the core requirements. Under the proposed structure, those states could no longer count on that money even if they complied with the core requirements.

“It’s a misguided structure,” said Shay Bilchik, former administrator of OJJDP and current director of the Center on Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “It takes a formula program connected to all states” and creates a ‘based-on’ requirement for discretionary funds where many states might not get anything.”

That, Bilchik said, could “decimate the connection to core principles” between the federal government and some states.

One state juvenile justice specialist, responding to the statement on condition of anonymity, believes that a switch from money-for­-compliance to money-based on-compliance would cause many states to opt out of the process entirely.

“So, the mandates of the JJDPA will still be in force, but there won't be funding attached or available to fund them?” the specialist asked in an e-mail to Youth Today. The state specialist called it  “basically an unfunded mandate.

“It seems as if this Race to the Top funding strategy was proposed by someone who does not understand how juvenile justice is currently funded,” the specialist said. “Did they solicit any input from [OJJDP] or the field prior to this recommendation?”

Click here to read the statement from OJJDP in its entirety.