Shay’s Sashay

In one of the children and youth field’s most surprising and important leadership developments in a decade, Shay Bilchik, the presidentially appointed administrator of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), is resigning to head one of the service provider field’s most powerful professional groups, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).

Reaction – and there was plenty of it – was decidedly mixed. When a reporter informed the executive of a member organization of the umbrella National Collaboration for Youth of Bilchik’s selection, the spontaneous reaction was “That’s terrible.” But Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, hailed the appointment and predicted that Bilchik will “lead them [CWLA] in a great direction.” Noting that over half of the state child welfare services are under some sort of state or federal court oversight, former Carter-era OJJDP Administrator Ira Schwartz thinks Bilchik has “a very formidable challenge ahead of him.”

It wouldn’t be Bilchik’s first formidable challenge.

When Bilchik arrived in Washington with Attorney General Janet Reno in mid-1993 to be an associate deputy attorney general, he had spent the previous 16 years on Reno’s staff in the Dade County state attorney’s office. There he eventually rose to be the supervisory prosecutor for all of the Miami courts’ child protection and juvenile delinquency-related activities. In that capacity, he became enthusiastically identified with one of the nation’s most contentious youth policies – allowing sole discretion for prosecutors to decide if accused serious juvenile crime offenders should be tried and sentenced in the adult criminal justice system. Bilchik and Reno successfully backed wide prosecutorial latitude in the Florida criminal code and used it often to send an estimated 350 juveniles into adult court. Bilchik’s new employer, CWLA, then as now denounces the practice. CWLA’s 1999 Children’s Legislative Agenda address the contentious waiver question by urging Congress to “preserve the juvenile court judge’s role in all transfer decisions: oppose automatic transfer requirements.” But after a record-breaking five years and five months on the job at OJJDP Bilchik has broadened and moderated position. Now he concedes waivers are “overused” and should be strictly limited to juveniles “truly beyond the reach of the juvenile justice system.”

When President Clinton’s first nominee to head OJJDP, Mark Soler, then and now president of the Youth Law Center, was blocked for inexplicable reasons by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) in 1994, Reno turned to her trusted aide, Shay Bilchik. Liberal-leaning advocates, including CWLA, didn’t like what they saw, or thought they saw: a career prosecutor who would turn OJJDP into a piggy bank for prosecutors, who often fancy themselves as professionally qualified to directly administer all juvenile justice programs in their jurisdictions. The GOP takeover of Congress in the November 1994 election a month after Bilchik’s arrival at OJJDP added to the trepidations of such groups as the Children’s Defense Fund and, yes, CWLA.

Bilchik found an office with about 60 staff and a stagnating budget of $93.5 million in considerable disarray. Twelve years of Reagan-Bush political appointees at the Justice Department had left OJJDP, says Krisberg, “in complete collapse.”

Krisberg credits OJJDP civil servant John Wilson with getting OJJDP back on track prior to Bilchik’s arrival. Over the next five years even Bilchik’s critics – a pool that has been steadily shrinking as OJJDP’s policies and strategic grant making began to win him additional supporters – conceded that he’s done a good job if not better at OJJDP. Says Vinnie Schiraldi, director of the D.C.-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “He’s as good as we could have gotten out of the Clinton administration.” To other close observers that’s pretty good indeed. Robbie Callaway, the Washington-based senior vice president of Boys & Girls Club of America, says, “Shay is going to be missed [by OJJDP]. He’s fully committed to kids. He’s done an excellent job given everything he’s had to deal with.”

One place Bilchik had to deal with was on Capitol Hill, where efforts to modify the OJJDP’s authorizing legislation were the order of the day. Especially under the gun were the Juvenile Justice Act’s “mandates”: the separation of juveniles from adult offenders in custody, keeping status offenders out of secure detention, reducing minority overrepresentation among arrested and detained youth, and removal of juveniles from adult jails and lockups.

There Christie Lee, until last month chief counsel for the last three years of the Senate Subcommittee on Youth Violence chaired by Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), found Bilchik “more than gracious” in his dealings with the subcommittee while noting he was “under restraints” from the Clinton administration. She credits Bilchik, as do his critics (whom Lee called “inflexible” on the mandates), for issuing new OJJDP Formula Grants Consolidated Regulations in December 1996 that gave states “flexibility” in complying with the mandates. She cites especially the “no-shared staff” provisions of the law and their deleterious effects on small counties giving, as an example, Elmore Co., Ala. (see Youth Today, January/February 1998).

Bilchik says that “the office was vocal in its opposition” during the 1999 debates in Congress on the juvenile crime bill to legislative attempts aimed at eroding all “core protections.” With the gun show-saddled juvenile crime bill due for another ride through the halls of Congress this year, Bilchik will have ample opportunity as executive director of CWLA to revisit these issues. But while the tussle over mandates looms large inside the Beltway, NCCD’s Krisberg characterizes the legislative maneuvering as “much ado about nothing” because a change in federal law would affect few juveniles.

During Bilchik’s first full year on the job, juvenile violent crime peaked, and began a slide that by 1998 had dropped by 19 percent from its 1994 high. Murder by juveniles dove 48 percent over the same four years and all indications are that both most of these welcomed downward trends continue to the present day. Does Bilchik deserve any credit? Why not, since similar increases would certainly be laid at his feet, just as the White House’s occupant gets the blame or credit for the state of the national economy.

No one is as bullish on his record at OJJDP than Bilchik himself. He cites as major accomplishments the office’s growth in program initiatives such as SafeFutures continuum of care, SafeKids/Safe Streets child abuse reduction, the Comprehensive Gang Strategy, and Safe Start: Children Exposed to Violence, as well as in individual program areas such as Community Assessment Centers, Intensive Aftercare, Nurse Home Visitation, Truancy Reduction, Mentoring, and After School Activities. To manage these ventures and more, the staff has grown to 115 and the budget by a serendipitous 725 percent since Bilchik’s arrival.

More important to Bilchik is the increase in the quality and range of publications sent out to an impressive mailing list of 200,000. That represents a four-fold increase in OJJDP’s dissemination efforts during his tenure.

Most of OJJDP’s recent budgetary windfall has come from the 1997 Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grants, which now account for $250 million of OJJDP’s total budget of $580 million. Derided by some as the Juvenile Prosecutors’ Relief Act, the funds have, says Bilchik, allowed ” the rebalancing of the state funding portfolio, freeing up other dollars for prevention.” But to the hard case of progressive national groups enmeshed in juvenile justice policy, not nearly enough of the over $2 billion in spending that crossed Bilchik’s desk over the last six fiscal years went to delinquency prevention programs.

Other than the mandates controversy, perhaps Bilchik’s weakest on-the-job grade is in research. One former OJJDP official gives Bilchik “low marks,” while Schwartz, now dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, says OJJDP has “no significant research agenda” but allows that research has been “better lately.”

“That’s just talk from researchers who haven’t been funded,” says Krisberg citing Bilchik’s “heavy-on-evaluation” priorities that are of the most interest to the practitioner world.

In a recent post-CWLA job-announcement interview, Bilchik offered up the following: “the jury is still out” on boot camps but they can only work with “a strong staff that believes in youth development”; the office’s almost $20 million missing kids program and the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children do “great work”; and OJJDP will soon reorganize (within another potential organization, see below) and set up a child protection unit that will include missing kids activities, including “the new horizon” of Internet-facilitated predatory crimes against children.

Bilchik’s swan song at OJJDP is the inclusion of a request in President Clinton’s Fiscal Year 2001 budget for an additional $100 million in targeted school safety funding on top of the $210 million in current spending now in a pool put up by OJJDP and three other federal agencies. OJJDP’s involvement in the School Safety Initiative has resulted in a dramatic upgrade of what Krisberg sneeringly dismisses as the “let’s-have-clowns-juggling-in-the-classroom” programs supported by local officials with funds from the U.S. Department of Education’s $566 million Safe and Drug Free-Schools program.

Over on the CWLA side of the job change equation, the number one question is, can a one-time career prosecutor be a “cultural” fit with the bleeding-heart liberal social work world of CWLA? Bilchik says his cultural shift occurred seven years ago when he came to Washington: “I never realized [back in Miami] how many programs do work.” Callaway, himself no stranger to laboring in two work cultures, thinks that CWLA made “a very good move” in hiring Bilchik.

The D.C.-based group led for 15 years by David Leiderman (“a tough act to follow” says Krisberg) has 110 staff, a budget of $16.5 million and over 1,000 public and nonprofit agency members. Thanks to its constituency, Leiderman’s leadership and the CWLA staff’s expertise and political acumen, the 80-year-old group is indisputably in the front ranks of progressive national children and youth-serving organizations. CWLA gains a man known at OJJDP for his prodigious work habits, but for less than sterling management skills hampered by a reluctance to delegate responsibilities.

His departure in the wind down year of the Clinton era is well-timed. In the offing – perhaps – is a reorganization of OJJDP and its bureaucratic parent, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). Pushed hard by some Republicans in Congress and Bilchik’s at-least titular boss, Assistant Attorney General Lori Robinson, the plan would meld OJJDP’s kids-focused programs and research into other OJP efforts targeted on courts, cops and corrections. This, say the plan’s numerous and vocal critics, would do fatal damage to juvenile justice interests. (While now officially neutral, look for Bilchik’s stance to change on Feb. 22, the day he reports to work at CWLA).

But on Jan. 3 Robinson, just a week before CWLA went public with Bilchik’s appointment, announced she was resigning. One reason, say staff within DOJ, is because her beloved reorganization plan had been nixed at the White House. The monkey wrench in the reorg machinery didn’t come from the White House’s barely discernable interest in juvenile justice policy but in a related bitter fight between Robinson and Nancy Gist, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance and a Wellesley college classmate of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gist enlisted the likes of Jessie Jackson and Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.) to help torpedo for now Robinson’s plan, under which her office would be making all the important who-gets-the-money-for-what grant-decisions.

After Bilchik’s departure, deputy administrator Wilson may or may not become acting administrator, as he was once before. Wilson may not be the father of OJJDP (that title went to former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) at the office’s creation in 1974) but he certainly qualifies as its foster father. OJJDP’s other deputy’s slot was filled briefly by Robin Lubitz, who returned to North Carolina in October, and remains vacant, with Betty Chemers serving in an acting capacity.


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