Weekly Notes: Federal juvenile justice money lacks certainty, champions; documentary on kids in adult prison to air Sunday; and more

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 “Beginning of the end?” –Joe Vignati, Georgia Juvenile Justice Specialist

“We are finding out we don’t have too many friends” – Liz Ryan, Executive Director, Campaign for Youth Justice

Those two comments, made this week to JJ Today, sum up the sentiment as appropriators finalizes an agreement to make drastic cuts in funding for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Click here for our breakdown of what is included in the “minibus” spending bill, but the bottom line is this: Title II grants to states and Juvenile Accountability Block Grants, the main conduits of federal funding into juvenile justice work, are nearly half of what they were in 2010.

What Vignati wondered aloud, many others privately wonder: Will there be, in fiscal 2013, any funding for activities related to the JJDPA? If not, will states and counties continue to adhere to the main tenets of the act: To keep kids out of adult jails, to handle status offenses without resorting to the deep end of the system, and to at least examine the reasons why disproportionate minority contact occurs?

What Ryan said, many are privately seething over. Advocates for the JJDPA are without a strong champion in the appropriations process, after years of enjoying some protection from Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and Sen.-turned-Veep Joe Biden. They see an administration everyone in the juvenile justice field expected to push reform and investment, now appearing uninterested in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) and what it represents.

Some even believe that there is a desire in Obama’s Justice Department to see OJJDP, and perhaps the other agencies within the Office of Justice Programs, folded up into one entity managed by one Senate-confirmed leader.

“It certainly looks like it,” Ryan said. “There is no administrator, there was no advocating for the budget. Whether there is intent or neglect, that’s unclear.” Either way, “I’m appalled and deeply disappointed” in the administration’s efforts on juvenile justice.

Back in July, JJ Today asked Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who heads OJP for Obama and did the same job for former President Bill Clinton, whether Justice planned to keep OJJDP intact regardless of the size of its appropriation.

“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.”

It isn’t the first time a Robinson-led OJP has been suspected of abuse or neglect of the agency. Youth Today Founder Bill Treanor, writing in 2003, cited several OJJDP staffers and juvenile justice leaders who saw Robinson’s Clinton-era restructuring proposal for OJP as the precursor to more overt attempts by the George W. Bush administration to dismantle the office

***As advocates pivot toward 2013 now, Justice has a call to make in the near future when it comes to the Title II funds, which are directly connected to compliance with JJDPA: Keep the minimum allocation at $600,000, or lower it?

Keeping the minimum at $600,000 means OJJDP will have to cut Title II for the more populous states by 30 percent or more, for the second year in a row. Lowering it means participation in JJDPA will become even less attractive than it already is for small states.

Either way, the decision will impact a lot of the state employees tasked with managing JJDPA compliance and disbursement of federal funds. We asked OJJDP spokeswoman Starr Stepp whether OJJDP intended to drop the minimum below $600,000.

“It’s too early for us to comment on it,” Stepp replied after conferring the department leadership.

Meaning the department knows which way it will go, but won’t comment? Or a decision has not been made?

“It’s too early for us to comment,” Stepp repeated.

Fair enough! A certain media organization is going to ask that every week until you are ready to comment on it. State applications for formula grants will probably be due in late winter of 2012, but states submit those applications before allocations are finalized every year.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which represents many of the state advisory groups on juvenile justice, has not decided whether it will poll its members and weigh in on the decision, said Tara Andrews, deputy executive director of CJJ.

***MSNBC will be airing a documentary on juveniles in adult facilities on Sunday at 10 p.m. The film, “Young Kids, Hard Time,” was filmed and produced by the inexplicably, wonderfully-named Calamari Productions in Indiana. The documentary takes viewers inside Indiana’s Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, where about 50 juveniles reside in the prison’s Youth Unit.

“Viewers will be shocked to see the age and the size of some kids we feature, and the sentences that are attached to their cases,” said Calamari Founder and Producer Karen Grau.

Grau has been in journalism for more than 20 years, and Calamari’s main trade is filming juvenile and family court proceedings in Indiana, so she is no stranger to the emotional drain of deeply personal interactions with the justice system. But she describes the day of filming when they take a juvenile who turns 18, and transfer him over to an adult unit, as “one of worst days of filming I’ve ever had. He was not ready.”

The documentary is timely in two ways. First, there are two states, North Carolina and New York, where there is a push to raise the age of jurisdiction to 18. Both states currently consider all 16- and 17-year-old misdemeanants and felons to be adults.

Second, the Justice Department has yet to release the long-awaited regulations for the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). When the department solicited public comment on PREA in January, two questions were posed on juveniles:

-Should the final rule include a standard that governs the placement of juveniles in adult facilities?
-If so, what should the standard require, and how should it interact with the current JJDPA [Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act] requirements and penalties?

Eight months before those questions were posed, a group of advocates sent a letter to the Justice Department with thoughts on how juveniles should be addressed in PREA. Among the recommendations: Require states to keep everyone under the age of 18 out of adult facilities, which is already the practice of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This change immediately would affect approximately 11,000 youth under 18 who are either in adult jail awaiting trial or serving time in an adult prisons.

We’ve heard that representatives for the corrections industry have argued for no special PREA standards for juveniles in adult facilities, but that both factions fear the middle ground: A policy that juveniles can be in adult prison but must be separated from the adults. Such a policy could mean expensive maneuvering for correctional facilities, and advocates worry that some places will simply resort to solitary confinement as the cheaper way to separate juveniles.

***The Florida Times-Union published an interesting version of an editorial yesterday regarding the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old Florida boy who has been charged as an adult with the murder of his two-year-old brother. The editorial board essentially passed on the sentiments of juvenile justice advocate Lawanda Ravoira, who identified for the board a number of times that the state should have intervened in Cristian’s life before the fateful day when he slammed his baby brother against a bookshelf.

That’s strategically worth noting for child advocates, because the piece evokes more emotion than a standard editorial coming down as wisdom from above by a newspaper.

Fernandez’s public defender, Matt Shirk, made a bold move this week by rejecting a plea offer that would place the boy in juvenile facilities until, at the most, age 21. Fernandez would have had to admit to second-degree murder.

Shirk rejected the deal, saying the defense would not agree to any deal that would keep Fernandez in custody after 18. He is pushing for the case to get sent to juvenile court.

***There are 428 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. UNLESS…this message sent to JJ Today last week is actually a back-channel communication from the administration. Bad news indeed, Robot!