Karen Baynes: Presumptive Favorite for OJJDP Administrator

After scores of columns speculating on who might run the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for President Barack Obama, the person who appears to be the real frontrunner is someone JJ Today had never heard of before this week.

It is too early to say that Karen Baynes is definitely going to be Obama’s OJJDP nominee. But JJ Today has confirmed from multiple sources that Karen Baynes has been recommended for the position by the Department of Justice, and that such a recommendation makes her nomination all but a done deal.

Baynes, who is 42, is a Maryland native who got her law degree from the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley in 1992. She settled in Georgia, working for the law firm Alston & Bird, but was drawn into youth issues while volunteering for a truancy project in Atlanta. Five years out of law school, she became the director of program development for the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The next year, 1998, she was appointed to be a juvenile court judge.

Baynes left the bench after about four years for the Carl Vinson Institute for Government at the University of Georgia, where she still serves as associate director for governmental services and research.

For a number of factions in the juvenile justice field, there is a lot to like about Baynes as a nominee. First, she would be the first African-American and first female to hold the position, at a time when race and gender are hot-button issues in juvenile justice.

It is not remotely a given that a minority nominee will make more strides on disproportionate minority contact than a white nominee – lots of advocates focused on racial issues would tell you they were less than thrilled with OJJDP’s attention to the issue under Bush-era Administrator J. Robert Flores – but it certainly isn’t a negative attribute. Simply put, there are conversations Baynes could have with state JJ leaders that might be easier because she is African-American.

Baynes is also knowledgeable about child welfare, and the nexus between that system and juvenile justice has gained attention in Washington, much in part to the work of former OJJDP administrator Shay Bilchik’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

Baynes was named the accountability agent in 2005 for the DeKalb County Consent Decree in the Kenny A v. Perdue, a  class-action lawsuit filed in 2002 by nonprofit litigator Children’s Rights regarding provision of zealous legal representation for children in foster care. She was also

a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2007-2008 Children and Family Fellowship class, which the foundation uses to increase the pool of leaders with the “vision and ability to create and sustain major system reforms and community initiatives that benefit large numbers of children and families.”

We mentioned her candidacy to another juvenile judge in Georgia, Clayton County Judge Steve Teske, who is well-versed in the national JJ landscape through his partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation on its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).

“Back in May, we were both in D.C.; she reached out to me, and asked if I’d be interested in being OJJDP administrator,” Teske said, laughing. “I told her no, I appreciate that but no…I thought she was thinking about nominating me!”

His view: Baynes is a natural fit. As a juvenile judge in Fulton County (which includes most of Atlanta), “she did great things there,” Teske said, noting in particular her involvement in the passing of legislation that made it a felony to pimp children in the state. Baynes also helped open Angela’s House, which is a home that seeks to help teenage prostitutes.

Her projects at Carl Vinson also help her qualify, according to Teske. “Who better to do [run a government agency] than someone who government goes to for help?!” [He really does speak excitedly, we’re probably underselling the exclamation points here].

Teske said he’s also a fan of D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Vinny Schiraldi, who was endorsed by many national JJ advocates for the job, and it’s beyond him who’d do a better job.

“If I was forced to pick between her and Vinny, I’d stand there with my mouth to the ground stuttering,” Teske said.

But if the recommendation is Karen Baynes, he said, “you can’t go wrong with her.”

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