Conyers Slams OJJDP Boss at Girls JJ Hearing

Compelling testimony at today’s hearing about girls in the juvenile justice system was nearly overshadowed by Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) anger over the  acting head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s failure to show up.

That diatribe was followed by Conyers’ strong criticism of his colleagues at the House Committee on Education and Labor for their failure to act on the pending reauthorization of OJJDP.

“What’s going on over there … that he [Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski] can’t be here,” Conyers said. “He’s sitting there talking about he can’t make it today. Brother, he’s going to make it here sooner than he thought he would.”

A short time later, he took a call, apparently from the missing Slowikowski, which seemed to cool his temper.  Later during the hearing,  he referred to Slowikowski as his “errant friend” who “I’m not mad at anymore.”

OJJDP officials did not provide information today about Slowikowski’s schedule or why he was not at the hearing.

OJJDP bashing did not stop there. Eileen Larace, the director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), presented the findings of the GAO report on OJJDP’s Girls Study Group. The group has been criticized by some in the field for its declaration that no existing girls programs stood up to evaluation, Larace reported. She credited OJJDP for starting to assist some existing programs with evaluations, but also said OJJDP had “no set plan that is documented, is shared with key stakeholders, and includes specific funding requirements and commitments and time frames for meeting its girls’ delinquency goals.”

She  also pointed out to the subcommittee members (there were five in attendance) that research and evaluation is a thing of the past at OJJDP. The entire research and evaluation program at the agency was disbanded in 2006, Larace said, which drew snorts and snickers from the congressmen.

Research was done away with under former administrator J. Robert Flores, and leadership in the Clinton Justice Department (including Obama’s likely Office of Justice Programs boss, Laurie Robinson) had already begun to shift juvenile-related R&E work toward other agencies at Justice. Also, the criticism of OJJDP leadership comes at a time when so many of the office’s priorities are set by Congress members themselves through earmarks. 

Witnesses testified before the judiciary committee’s subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security about the need for an increased federal focus on girls – the fastest growing population in juvenile justice – highlighted several key problem areas:

*Lots of unnecessary incarceration: “We are … particularly concerned with the fate of status offenders, who are disproportionately girls, and often incarcerated for technical violations,” said Jackie Jackson, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Greater Peninsula in Hampton, Va.

The 2006 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook showed there were 4,711 youth who were detained, committed or diverted by judges in status offense cases; 41 percent (1,951) were girls. But here’s the crazy figure: those 1,951 girls represent 14 percent of all the girls who were placed by a judge. Status-offending boys accounted for only 4 percent of locked-up boys. 

*Abhorrent practices in facilities: Subcommittee members appeared disturbed by testimony of National Center for Girls and Young Women Director Lawanda Ravoira, who reported that male guards are frequently present as girls shower, and that male guards often participate in strip searches. Ravoira ran Florida’s PACE Center for Girls for 14 years, and now frequently visits girl-serving facilities for the center.

“You don’t know of anything, any standards that says this is okay to do, right?” asked an incredulous-looking Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)

“I know it is done in practice,” Ravoira said.

One young woman invited to testify, Tiffany Rivera of New York City, recounted how guards allowed her to be jumped by other girls. She said she frequently observed guards sharing deeply personal information about girls, including their medical history, with each other and with other inmates.

*Programs that listen to girls, job train can work: Ravoira said she prepared for her testimony by asking girls at a Florida facility what they would tell Congress. She relayed the words of Maria, a girl who had been abused and ignored by family and eventually found her way into drug use.

“She said, ‘Tell them to do what our parents didn’t do. I have nobody to talk to. I have no one. I’ve tried to be good, but I have always messed up.”

That sentiment was echoed by both young women invited to testify: Rivera, who is 19, and Nadiyah Shereff, 23, of San Francisco. Rivera said she was treated as “just an angry girl” in need of medication until she was referred to Girls Educational Mentoring Services (GEMS).

“GEMS was always there when I needed them, when I was in trouble or just needed someone to vent to,” said Rivera, who hopes to become a police detective.

Shereff credited the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco for changing her life with the Sisters Rising program. It provides young women with a nine-month paid internship with the center aimed at helping them prepare for future employment. Shereff recently graduated and plans to attend law school in the near future.

*Retask Girls Study Group: Subcommittee chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) asked witnesses twice what they’d like to see OJJDP look at going forward; what could the agency do to help develop the field of programs serving delinquent girls? Three answers came back: information on what works, or programs worthy of replication or adaptation; attention to the inappropriate staff practices at facilities; and better information on how many girls in the system are pregnant.

There were indications that the House may include some stronger language on girls in its version of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization.

Taking on his congressional comrades, Conyers mentioned more than once that the reauthorization was two years overdue, and vowed that his Judiciary committee would work on a bill with the Education and Labor committee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

Miller’s staff has told JJ Today he intends to finish reauthorization in this Congress, and it is his committee that traditionally oversees juvenile justice issues on the House side.

But Conyers appeared frustrated at the pace of things. “They ought to feel lucky we don’t write a bill ourselves,” Conyers said of his colleagues at Ed/Labor.


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