Weekly Notes: Justice leader says OJJDP not going anywhere; few recommendations come out of juvenile justice working groups; and more

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***Day 909 of the Obama administration and still no nominee to serve as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The first palindromic number since JJ Today started keeping track!

***With no nominee for OJJDP, an overdue reauthorization for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and a brutal juvenile justice appropriation set for House approval, there is apprehension about the possibility of OJJDP going the way of the dodo. That’s not going to happen, said Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who heads the Office of Justice Programs (OJP).

“Yes,” she said flatly when asked if OJJDP would stay intact regardless of the appropriation. “I understand why people would worry … there’s no doubt in my mind at all that OJJDP stays.”

The only caveat, she said, would be if an act of Congress consolidated the Office of Justice Programs divisions. Her boss could veto such an act, of course, but we took her to mean that the administration has no plans to change OJP even if the appropriations are gutted.

***The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention met for the second time in three months, and Attorney General Eric Holder used the occasion to announce a joint initiative with the Department of Education to address the overuse of suspensions and expulsions in the school disciplinary milieu.

Youth Today covered the announcement yesterday, along with the report by the Council of State Governments that prompted it: a study of Texas students that showed six of 10 students in the state had received an in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or an expulsion to alternative education programs by the time they were seniors. Another major finding was that far more students who received harsh discipline were involved in the juvenile justice system than students who had no disciplinary record.

There is an additional highlight of this report, aside from its many findings, and that is simply the fact that it was done. Student records for almost one million students were used and merged with juvenile justice records where applicable, and nobody’s life appears to have been ruined. It is a major statement that as long as a good plan is in place, privacy issues need not prevent critical looks at the connection between school, child welfare or juvenile justice records.

We asked CSG spokeswoman Martha Plotkin how the data culmination occurred. Her answer:

“The data for the study were accessed through the Texas A&M University Education Research Center (ERC). They were responsible for merging and de-identifying the databases. This is described in the methodology on page 25 where it says that the TEA has authority, in accordance with the Education Code, to merge identified school and juvenile justice records. The agency then made the records available to the ERC, which in turn made the data available to the researchers.”

Sensitive student records and sensitive juvenile records, living together as one study? There may yet be hope for a deal on the debt ceiling.

***One last point on the school discipline study and initiative. At the meeting, council member Roland Warren of the National Fatherhood Initiative urged the attorney general to keep fatherhood in mind in the school discipline initiative. He threw out the idea of training good dads as mentors and matching them with young men.

If the 2012 Justice budget ends up looking anything like the House Appropriations Committee bill, Warren was lobbying in one of the few avenues of investment where Holder has some money to play with. Mentoring is set to get $83 million in the House bill.

***Yesterday’s council meeting also featured the long-awaited release of recommendations from the four “issue groups” announced at a Jan. 29, 2010 council meeting. Out of 17 issues that OJJDP mulled over, the council settled on these four to study over the year and present recommendations on: Education of youth at-risk of delinquency, tribal youth, juvenile re-entry and racial and ethnic disparities.

Only four recommendations were adopted, by voice vote, at yesterday’s meeting:

-Creation of a commission to address information sharing and confidentiality issues, and facilitating the appropriate exchange of information about at-risk youth.

-Initiation of cross-agency communication on tribal youth.

-Tribal-led national building and capacity development on issues concerning at-risk youth.

-Issuance of  joint guidance from Justice and the Department of Education on school discipline and civil rights, which Holder later announced would be part of his new initiative.

The adoption of just four recommendations – none of which directly pertain to either re-entry or racial/ethnic disparities – was not what JJ Today expected. Everything we had heard as the issue groups did their work suggested that the groups would settle on their best recommendations and, after some review by OJJDP, would product a public document enumerating their lists.

Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski yesterday described a more political process. Only recommendations that had been vetted and accepted by every agency involved in the coordinating council would be adopted and pushed out into the public domain. Other recommendations were considered “tabled” for the moment, pending universal acceptance by participating agencies.

The updates JJ Today had heard suggested this was going to be more brainstorming than delivery of formal policy proposals. At a meeting last year, the education group mentioned the possibility of requiring public schools to accept credits from juvenile facilities. At the same meeting, the re-entry group discussed permitting the use of Medicaid inside juvenile facilities.

Who knows if the feds even could require credit transfer, or if any expansion of Medicaid is possible at during these fiscal straits? It made us think the point of the exercise for each issue group was, effectively, to say, “Forget what is financially or politically doable; what would help address challenges in this aspect of juvenile justice?”

Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Tracy Velázquez, whose organization set up listening sessions for the issue teams on education, re-entry and racial disparities, said she thought the final product might establish the consensus recommendations but list other ideas as well.

For example, these are some of the recommendations from JPI’s listening sessions, which featured leaders from the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative:

-Seeding communities to replicate the Georgie’a Clayton County At-Risk Children Committee, which has drastically reduced the number of students referred to the courts from schools without jeopardizing school safety.

-Training probation and parole officers on education issues so they can play a bigger role in helping juvenile offenders return to school.

-Making receipt of Second Chance Act money contingent on “states providing youth with a meaningful opportunity for timely release from placement, and with a right to counsel post-disposition to facilitate reentry.”

“I expected a public report that consolidated recommendations from the field and from the government,” said Velázquez. “Even if all the agencies couldn’t agree, it would give people a chance to see what the options were.”

One council member in the re-entry group told us that what Slowikowski described at the meeting was always the plan as he understood it. Another council member expressed frustration that the more exhaustive list of recommendations – those that had been tabled and those adopted by the council – might not be made public.

“The whole document was great,” he said. “I don’t think there was an understanding” about the process. Maybe there should have been one.”