Weekly Notes: Looming SORNA deadline; Juvenile services secretary steps down

***States have until July to pass legislation that establishes a federally-compliant sex offender database; look for those conversations to start in earnest when legislatures begin to meet after January. There are still 46 states that need to comply with the Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act (SORNA) aspect of the Adam Walsh Act. Only Florida, Ohio, South Dakota and Delaware are currently in compliance.

SORNA requires states to include at least some juveniles on the database, but gives states free rein to include lots of juveniles. Failure to comply would cost states a portion of a Justice Department block grant (Byrne Grants), and in the current economy, states are pretty averse to sentences that include “forgo,” “million,” and “dollars.”

On the other hand, at least one organization – Justice Policy Institute (JPI) – believes developing the Walsh-required database and tracking the people on it would cost most states more than they would lose. JPI is asking states to not comply with the law on philosophical grounds

Attorney General Eric Holder has pushed the deadline back twice now for compliance with Walsh and its Congressional architects are getting frustrated. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who pushed for the SORNA requirements, told Scripps reporter Isaac Howard that he was sending Holder a letter asking him to enforce the deadline this time. Dorgan’s home state has not complied yet.

For some reason, the media in Tennessee has been far more interested in covering Walsh compliance than any other state. Tennessean’s Brandon Gee wrote about the pending deadline last week, and an editorial in Tennessee’s Leaf Chronicle this week says the feds are essentially blackmailing the states into complying with the Adam Walsh Act, but Tennessee should “put it on the books” for 2011.

If you’re in the “no juveniles on the database” camp, no debate on the crafting of compliant legislation is necessarily good. But is you assume that most states will comply eventually with SORNA database standards, you hope most states handle it like Tennessee. It’s been openly and thoughtfully discussed, and there is an acknowledgment by legislators that inclusion of some – but not most – juvenile sex offenders is the right move. Because the alternative could be states rushing through the process in a legislative session that will mostly focus on budget issues, and slapping together a last-minute compliance law without thoughtful discussion about what it actually means for juvenile offenders. 

*** Donald DeVore, Maryland’s juvenile services secretary, is stepping down to pursue other opportunities, according to a statement from the Department of Juvenile Services. DeVore oversaw Connecticut’s juvenile justice system starting in 2004. He left the job in 2007 when it became clear Connecticut had back-burnered its plans to move toward the small facilities and principles of the “Missouri model.”

The Baltimore Sun ran an editorial today that said the “common wisdom about his tenure is that his record has been mixed.” But read the editorial, because that is not what whoever wrote it actually believes. It sticks lower juvenile homicide arrests in the pro-DeVore column, then points out that credit for that could easily go to Baltimore schools or the police. It mentions the move out of federal oversight for three Maryland facilities, but then suggests that basic federal compliance is not much of an indicator of actual success.

The editorial places the “cons” squarely on DeVore’s shoulders: the murder of a teacher at one facility, sloppy accounting practices at DJS, a case where a juvenile on electronic monitoring killed a 5-year-old boy.

DeVore’s Maryland reform efforts don’t get the national attention received by the D.C. reform (started by Vinny Schiraldi in 2005), but the goal was essentially the same: take a poorly functioning system and transform it into a customized version of Missouri’s system. There are two critical aspects of that model: small, development-oriented facilities for juveniles who need incarceration, and high-quality programs for the juveniles who are released or are sentenced directly to community programs.

The biggest selling point of Missouri is the low recidivism rate that its system now routinely posts (under 10 percent), and neither D.C. nor Maryland are sniffing that yet. It took more than a decade of continuous leadership for Missouri to put itself in position to post such low rates. It really is yet to be seen whether another JJ system can find leadership it trusts enough, and that can weather the inevitable and intermittent storms of juvenile justice long enough, to actually duplicate Missouri’s success. 

***Best of luck in future endeavors, Kelli Taylor. She and Tara Libert founded Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop in 1996 to help connect D.C. youth in adult jails with books and creative writing, and it is certainly a concept worth proliferating around the country. Taylor has stepped down and will pursue other career opportunities, and Libert will become executive director, with Juliana Ratner stepping in as program director. 


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