Citizen Advisers for State Juvenile Justice Programs Gather in DC

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WASHINGTON - A mix of around 250 child welfare workers, law enforcement officials, public officials and nonprofit employees from 49 states and territories, many of whom advise their local agencies on preventing juvenile delinquency and improving juvenile justice systems, are convening near Washington, D.C., this weekend to lobby federal legislators and share best practices at a time of shrinking state budgets.

This year’s conference and meeting of the Council of State Advisory Groups, organized by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, will train new state advisory group members on federal requirements under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, tackle common challenges like recruiting enough members under the age of 24 to meet federal quotas, and emphasize how members can use research data about proven outcomes to improve their programs and measure performance.

Clema Lewis, co-director of a domestic violence coalition in the Virgin Islands, was among the attendees at a training session for new advisory group members this morning. Although she’s been a part of the advisory group for the last 12 years – and now serves as its chairperson — this was the first such training she had ever attended, she said.

Coming to a conference like this helps her keep up to date on the latest research, network with other people with similar challenges, and most importantly, take that information back home to share with her peers, Lewis said.

“We are all dealing with the same kind of issues,” said Chris Shorter, the chief-of-staff for the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, who just joined the District’s advisory group this month.

The conference comes at a critical time for state agencies, many of whom are struggling with cuts in federal funds of up to 50 percent for many programs, such those that address disparities in detention rates for minority youth, said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

“In many ways children’s issues and juvenile justice issues have been a lower priority for both the administration and the Congress in past years,” Hornberger said. Deep cuts to funding make it very difficult to implement strong programs, yet Congress continues to make more cuts while criticizing programs for being ineffective, she said.

Conference attendees were encouraged to visit their federal legislators earlier in the week and ask them to reintroduce the OJJDP Act, which first passed in 1974 and was last reauthorized in 2002. Some attendees reported back that their legislators appeared wary of promising anything related to funding, Hornberger said.

“Congress will have to make some very definite choices,” Hornberger said. If state representatives stand by and allow their state’s programs to be defunded, it could mean higher juvenile crime in their communities down the line, she said.

“If the federal government abdicates its role, that’s just an enormous loss at a time when really what should be happening is greater federal leadership,” Hornberger said.