Weekly Notes: Indigent Defense conference convenes in D.C.; movement on OJJDP administrator search; and more

***Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to a standing room-only crowd yesterday at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, D.C., yesterday to kick off the National Symposium on Indigent Defense. He was adamant that the Justice Department would raise awareness about the paucity of legal representation for poor adults and juvenile offenders.

“If they knew the extent of the problem,” Holder said, the public “would be outraged. This is not a passing issue for this Department of Justice.”

Holder’s most pointed comments were for incompetent juvenile court judges and states that pass the issue of counsel onto the counties (22 states do not fund public defenders at all).

On judges: “Juveniles are sometimes waived without understanding” what they are doing…”this is simply unacceptable, and some courts accept these waivers.”  

On states: “Every state should have a public defender system. Every state.”

The symposium gave more than one attendee a sense of déjà vu, because it was in the same hotel 10 years ago that Holder commenced the last Justice Department conference on indigent defense. The issue was not a priority during the Bush administration, but Holder told the crowd that he would be taking “concrete steps” on ensuring counsel in the “coming weeks.” More on that once we get the details.

The best speech from the morning belonged to Indiana University law professor Norman Lefstein, though, who was tasked with summarizing the progress (or lack thereof) on indigent defense. Hopefully Justice will make available video of his speech and others.

The public defender industry is in “a chronic state of crisis,” Lefstein said, despite the fact that spending nationwide on public defenders increased from $2.8 billion in 2000 to $4.3 billion in 2008.

Lefstein said the field is still “woefully underfunded,” and believes it will be on the chopping block as states and counties contemplate tough budgets in the coming years.

“Is there anything easier to cut than money for people defending accused criminals?” Lefstein asked rhetorically.

***JJ Today caught up with Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who oversees the Office of Justice Programs for Holder. The latest on the search for a nominee to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is that new candidates for the job have been interviewed since Karen Baynes withdrew from consideration in early December.

“We are talking to some folks,” Robinson said. “As you know, it is not a process that happens overnight.”

Or over hundreds of nights, apparently. The nomination/confirmation process in general has moved out of the slow lane, with the removal this month of most holds placed on nominees by senators, so perhaps the wait for a nominee is nearly over.

Robinson described juvenile justice, and the search for a good candidate for OJJDP, as “high priority” matters for Holder.

Now, who are among those being considered? That is what everyone wants to know. One key OJJDP staffer even asked us at a recent function who we heard was in the running. Point being, it appears to be a tight circle of people pondering candidates.

The rumor mill has been floating these names of late:

-Ernestine Gray, New Orleans juvenile and family court judge since 1984. Gray has long been involved with two organizations with close ties to OJJDP: she is the current chair of the board of trustees for National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and is a former president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

-Gail Mumford, senior associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former director of treatment services for the Missouri Department of Youth Services, where she worked for 23 years.

-Laurie Garduque, director of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative, a major juvenile justice reform effort that focuses on four states (Louisiana, Washington, Illinois and Pennsylvania).

-Vicki Spriggs, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.

For what it’s worth, Garduque and Gray both attended the indigent defense conference. Spriggs is strongly supported by one major JJ reformer, who declined to comment about her on the record because openly discussing potential nominees is punishable by death. Okay, that last part is made up, but it sure seems that way sometimes!

We talked to Spriggs back in 2006 for a story about a peculiar approach to juvenile rehabilitation.

***Funding for juvenile justice reform was slim pickings last year, especially after the JEHT Foundation was done in by financial scoundrel Bernie Madoff. But 2010 starts with good news for a major reform player, the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Youth Law (NCYL).

NCYL landed grants from two major foundations to expand its Juvenile Justice Reform Project, which is currently focused on the state juvenile justice systems in Wyoming and Arkansas. The Washington, D.C.-based Public Welfare Foundation, which each year since 2007 has given NCYL $60,000 in general support, committed $150,000 to the expansion just before the New Year. The New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies also supported the expansion, to the tune of $350,000.

The additional money will allow for continued work on those two states, California, and probably a few more projects. NCYL is looking to add an attorney and policy advocate as part of the expansion.

Heard this from one local advocate in Arkansas: the juvenile justice system is the shame of the state when it comes to youth work, despite the recent efforts of Pat Arthur, NCYL’s senior attorney on JJ.

In Wyoming, things seem to point toward at least some changes in the near future for a system that does not adhere to the core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and where juveniles are regularly locked up, with adults, for even relatively minor offenses. Actually calling it a juvenile justice system is a stretch, because there are no basic state standards for the counties to meet.  

The new funding keeps NCYL in the mix with some local JJ advocates, and two bills with preliminary approval from the Wyoming legislature could set much needed standards. One bill would set minimum standards within juvenile facilities, and another would set certain limits on which offenders could be placed in those facilities.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s administration has helped push the reform agenda in recent years – he supports both reform bills – and he has a major decision to make soon that could affect the momentum of change. Freudenthal, an incredibly popular Democrat in a mostly Republican state, may seek a third term as governor even though current state law prohibits it (he would have to win a fight to change the law and then win re-election).

It’s anyone’s guess if or how a gubernatorial race without Freudenthal would impact JJ reform, but you have to think the best chance for continued change is his running again and winning.

***Public Welfare Foundation has a new program officer for juvenile justice by the way: Katayoon Majd, formerly the senior staff attorney for the D.C.-based National Juvenile Defender Center headed by Patty Puritz.

***JJ Today offers condolences to the family and friends of Hannah Wheeling, a teacher at Maryland’s Cheltenham Youth Facility. Wheeling was found dead outside the facility after what appears to have been a sexual assault. Click here for excellent coverage on this, and Cheltenham’s troubled history with abuse and security, by Baltmore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Brent Jones.


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