Weekly Notes: Justice food fights with grantees; budget looks like a done deal; new resources from OJJDP

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***There are 450 days left in the presidential term of Barack Obama, and there is still no nominee to serve as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That’s right! It’s time for a dramatic change. JJ Today is bored of counting forward, so we’re beginning the countdown. Seriously, this is such a non-issue by now that we are retiring it from the top of this column. There are much weightier issues to deal with in the field of juvenile justice like…

REFRESHMENTS AND BEVERAGES.

***The relationship between OJJDP and the states has weathered years of declining federal money and what some perceive as increasing federal demands. But an abrupt ban on spending federal funds on food and beverage at conferences has some grantees of the department chomping at the bit. They’re really stewing over it. It’s turning into a real food fight! All right, enough.

This is definitely an evolving situation, but we’ll try and break it down as simply as possible.

On Sept. 20, Department of Justice Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar produced a report about high food and beverage costs at Justice Department conferences stretching back into the George W. Bush era until just after Obama’s inauguration. The report quickly became well-known for the “$16 muffin,” which was highlighted in the report and quickly debunked by Justice.

On Sept. 30, a message was sent to all Department of Justice grantees alerting them that conference costs would soon be addressed in a guidance. The message asked that the grantees “work with us to strictly minimize costs, ensure we are prudent in our spending, and avoid the fact or appearance of extravagant spending.”

In early October, OJJDP hosted its national conference, aka Juvenile Woodstock, which includes two days of pre-conference sessions with breakfast and box lunches and two full days with breakfast, three-course lunches and coffee breaks. Some grantees got word at the conference that the rules on food spending would be changing soon.

On Oct. 21, a memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson goes out to hundreds of OJP grantees and contractors stating that “effective immediately … no OJP funding can be used to purchase food and/or beverages for any meeting, conference, training or other event.”

The new rules seem to apply to everything from a national conference to a State Advisory Group meeting for a working lunch. Some state-level grantees worry that their sub-grantees – some of whom meet with parents and youths after the work day and might spring for pizza and cookies – will also be covered by this policy shift.

“We have several grantees that had programs this week,” said Ashley Barnett, Indiana’s juvenile justice specialist. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, are we going to have to deny funds’?”

The sole named exception is paying for water, though OJP retains discretion to approve costs for other things in the case of events at “extremely remote areas” or where a certain session or presentation could only be scheduled during lunch or dinner.

Obviously, there were already OJP-funded conferences and meetings scheduled for which contracts had already been signed with hotels or caterers to provide food and drink at events. The advice on that in the memo: change the contracts or nix the event.

“Grantees that have already contracted to provide such services should renegotiate such contracts to avoid these expenditures,” the memo states. It also spells out an acceptable renegotiation: one refreshment break per day.

Events “that are already scheduled may not proceed until you receive e-mail notification from OJP that the event and all of its associated costs have been approved. In the absence of such approval, grantees must cancel the event.”

Why is this a big deal? For 2012, it really isn’t. Other federal agencies have for years prohibited contractors and grantees from using federal money for event catering, and people still manage.

The retroactive aspect of the policy – covering contracts already negotiated for future events – however, has grantees panicked and irked. There are grantees with conferences scheduled for next week, contracts for food and drink already signed, and organizers have no idea whether they will have to cancel, or foot the bill for food, which for some might not be realistic. In all, there might be about four dozen conferences already scheduled that will require renegotiated contracts.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction in response to a legitimate concern” caused by only a few cases, said Tara Andrews, deputy director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “On the one hand it may not sound harmful to tell grantees they can’t purchase food or beverage. Except you stop to think about all the meetings, retreats, trainings, outreach activities, that are on some level involved.”

It also wasn’t warmly received that the policy was made official right after OJJDP wrapped up its own conference. There were actually rumors that Woodstock almost was  canceled because OJP was pressured to impose new rules earlier in the month.

Laurie Robinson, asked how she see the immediate upshot from the rules changes, suggested Justice is prepared to work with grantees. In an e-mail, Robinson said:

“On this policy, we are definitely going to work with folks and do understand their concerns.  The new policy definitely includes a provision for those grantees who already have contracts in place prior to the policy effective date. In these cases, as long as the events and food and beverage costs are within the DOJ guidelines that pre-existed our policy, we would allow those expenses. 

“In some cases, we may ask grantees to scale back food and beverage costs if that can reasonably be done, but we took steps to ensure that we would avoid putting grantees in that position if at all possible. 

“For events where, for whatever reason, we have to have the grantee scale back or postpone the event, we recognize that some of them may end up incurring cancellation fees. While we hope to avoid this, we would obviously not want grantees that complied with all of the DOJ guidelines to have to be ‘stuck’ with such fees.

“Bottom line is that the policy did anticipate that some would have already negotiated these arrangements -- and we would need to be (and want to be) flexible with them.”

The most interesting line is the last one in the first paragraph, because it suggests that the old rules apply to grantees that already had contracts in place. Compare that with some guidance sent to confused grantees by James Burch, OJP’s deputy assistant attorney general:

“Grantees and contractors with existing contracts are ‘grandfathered’ in, but must renegotiate their contracts to meet more stringent cost requirements discussed in the grantee memo.”

Confusion is carrying the day on this right now. And while this is a row about adults and what they eat at meetings during a time when services for kids are getting slashed, it is also about the potential for cancellations of meetings that involve governor’s staff, law enforcement leadership, judges and state legislators.

The tie between OJJDP and some states is hanging by a thread; the formula and block grant funds were slashed last year and in all likelihood will be slashed again for 2012. The immediate concern here is abruptly canceled events further fueling the argument against bothering with OJJDP at all.

“At the national conference we heard there’s going to be changes, you’ll have to jump through more hoops,” said Joe Vignati, who serves as the state juvenile justice specialist in Georgia. “But don’t just willy-nilly change the whole game. On top of all the enhanced compliance and shrinking funds, you do this?”

Said Barnett: “In my personal opinion…it could have just been handled differently. I wish they had allowed us some time.”

***The Washington Post editorial board jumped up and down on Congress this week for reducing the federal commitment to juvenile justice funding.

“For decades, Washington has been an indispensable partner to state and local governments in dealing with juvenile justice challenges,” the Oct. 25 editorial begins. “But that partnership – and the important advances it has brought – will be endangered if Congress gets its way.”

The timing of the editorial is important: in the next two weeks Congress could strike a spending deal for some agencies that would include the Senate’s low allocations for juvenile justice.

JJ Today’s sources, advocates and lobbyists alike, say the current spending agreement is a done deal, that there will be no change in the juvenile justice lines or much else for that matter. Attempts have been made to sell appropriators on moving some of the funds for the Bureau of Prisons back to juvenile justice or to the Second Chance Act programs, which are being eliminated. (BOP is the only Justice agency slated for an increase by the Senate).

“That Post editorial is not going to make anyone change their vote,” said Robbie Callaway, an influential Boys & Girls Clubs lobbyist who was involved in the development of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in the 1970s.

***A few other quick tidbits:

-OJJDP published a 50-page guide this month on emergency planning for juvenile justice residential facilities. The guide runs through how to plan, budget and staff the immediate reaction to an emergency, establish shelter for youths and then connect them with mental and physical health care.

It’s worth a look at the very least for any facility leader. JJ Today covered the state of youth services one year after Hurricane Katrina back in 2006, and remember very well that the city’s juvenile confinement facility had an evacuation plan that went off without a hitch. Meanwhile, its detention center had little in the way of a game plan and juveniles ended up stuck at the Orleans Parish Prison, where they shared space with adult convicts and were trapped by flood waters that rose to chest level.

Click here to access the guide.

-For law enforcement and  judicial system types who can make it to Charlottesville on Friday, Nov. 4, the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia is hosting a seminar on “Police Custody and the Interrogation of Juveniles.” The one-day, $135 session will brief participants on developments in this brought on by J.D.B. v North Carolina, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered law enforcements and the courts to consider age when weighing the need to take a juvenile into custody before asking them questions.

Click here for more details.

-A more accesible resource for law enforcers outside the Washington area: OJJDP and the International Association of Chiefs of Police launched the Youth Focused Policing Resource Center, a website where browsers can search for local youth programs, resources and research, or apply for technical assistance from IACP. Click here to access the website.

-The New York State Permanent Judicial Division on Justice for Children is looking for papers and presenters to include at its National Leadership Summit in March, which will center on the theme “Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court.” The deadline to submit an abstract is Nov. 15 with a final paper deadline of Jan. 5; click here for details about acceptable subjects and paramters for the papers.

-The National Center for Youth in Custody, a new venture funded by OJJDP and co-directed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, kicked off its existence with some initial meetings at Juvenile Woodstock. Later in the month, OJJDP issued a quick bulletin outlining what exactly the center would do and how it would do it. Click here to read the bulletin.