Letter from 19 Congressmen Urges Obama to Name a leader at OJJDP

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A group of 19 congressmen is pressing the Obama White House to fill the long-vacant post of administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – a position  that has never been filled during the current administration.

“As we are over halfway through the current presidential term, we are distressed by the lack of a nominee and would like to schedule a meeting with you or a surrogate to discuss the issue,” the group said late last week in a letter addressed to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Leadership at the agency is critical because of the “drastic depletion of funding and support” in the past 10 years at OJJDP, the letter said. “Federal funding for OJJDP and its programs has declined 90 percent since 2002 and the [Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act] is four years overdue for reauthorization.”

The administrator job OJJDP, which requires Senate confirmation, has remained vacant despite the expectation that the Obama administration would have significantly more interest in the issue than did the Bush administration. President Obama fought legislation that would have transferred more youth to the adult system when he served as a state senator in Illinois, and Biden is well-versed in juvenile justice issues as a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition, Attorney General Eric Holder has on numerous occasions said that he wants juvenile justice to be his legacy in this administration.

Jeff Slowikowski, the agency’s associate administrator of demonstration programs since 2004, has served as acting administrator since Obama was sworn in.

The Justice Department has launched new projects that support increasing the number of juvenile defenders in the nation and addressing the connection between witnessing violence and juvenile delinquency.

And when cable network A&E aired a reality show that promoted “scared straight” strategies with juvenile offenders, Holder, Office of Justice Programs leader Laurie Robinson and Slowikowski were quick to denounce the strategy’s poor track record publicly. Two of the three states featured in the show have suspended their scared straight programs.

But the largest federal priority for most juvenile advocates – reauthorization of JJDPA – has yet to be accomplished. A reauthorization bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 111th Congress would have phased out the valid court order,  which creates an exception to federal regulations against detaining youths for status offenses. Elimination of the valid court order has long been a goal of many juvenile justice advocates, who now feel that momentum on the matter may have been lost.

Stagnation on that process largely lies at the doorstep of the House Education and Labor Committee, which did not even consider a reauthorization bill during the 111th Congress, but many advocates believe that the lack of a permanent leader at OJJDP did not help the cause.

The days after Obama’s election generated a fervor from the national juvenile justice advocacy community, which had a withering relationship with the leadership at OJJDP during the tenure of President George W. Bush. Just two days after the Nov. 4 election, 150 advocates packed a brainstorming session – led by Obama adviser and Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree – to present their ideas on policy priorities on the subject of juvenile justice.

It would be almost a year after that session that Karen Baynes, a former juvenile judge from Georgia, would emerge as the likely candidate to be nominated for OJJDP. Two months later, in December, Baynes withdrew from consideration.

In May of 2010 it looked as if the Justice Department was poised to recommend Vicki Spriggs, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, for the job. But because of the looming budget danger at her Texas agency, Spriggs decided to stay and protect TJPC, and withdrew her name from contention for OJJDP administrator in June.

Since then, little information has become public about whom the administration is considering, or whether it intends to nominate anyone during this presidential term. Among the few names that emerged as possibilities: California judge and former prosecutor Kurt Kumli, and Jane Tewksbury, who has served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services since 2005.

Signing the letter to Obama and Biden were 18 Democrats: Christopher Murphy (Conn.), John Conyers (Mich.), Carolyn McCarthy (N.Y.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Gwen Moore (Wisc.), Andre Carson (Ind.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Donna Edwards (Md.), Bobby Scott (Va.), Marcia Fudge (Ohio), Pete Stark (Calif.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), Yvette Clark (N.Y.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Danny Davis (Ill.), Jim Moran (Va.).

One Republican joined them: Todd Russell Platts of Pennsyvlania.