The field of juvenile justice is abuzz with the recent news of President Barack Obama appointing Robert Listenbee to be the next administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
While most reports are quoting “advocates” closely aligned with the defense bar, there is another group of professionals who are cheering this nomination as well — juvenile court prosecutors. As many in the field know, one of Listenbee’s biggest supporters is George Mosee, the deputy district attorney in Philadelphia who oversees juvenile court and has worked closely with Listenbee for more than 10 years.
While it may seem unusual for a prosecutor to hail the praises of a defense attorney, Mosee and Listenbee are both committed to bringing about positive outcomes for the young people in Philadelphia. Over the past years these two men have developed a professional working relationship based upon mutual respect and trust — one that can serve as a model of collaboration for other practitioners on both sides of the aisle.
As a former prosecutor currently working with the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative, I have had the good fortune to work with both of these men since 2008. It was actually after seeing what they have done together for the young people in Philadelphia that I asked to meet with them to talk about their unique relationship. Because I work with juvenile prosecutors across the country, I wanted to show that collaboration is in fact possible and positive.
When they began working together in 2002, Listenbee and Mosee started making changes to some of Philadelphia’s juvenile practices, beginning with minor crimes and diversion decisions. Understanding the impact these initial decisions can have on whether or not a young person enters the system, and the collateral consequences associated with that entry, they knew this was an important place to start. But change does not come overnight and it was still slow at times. In 2004, Mosee was becoming frustrated with the impediments to improving the system. He met with the head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and asked that Listenbee be freed up to devote more time to system enhancement. This request was granted, primarily because of the reputation George had garnered for being fair and reasonable. This new directive enabled Mosee and Listenbee to devote significantly more time towards changes on both the policy and frontline levels.
Both Mosee and Listenbee recognize that although it is not common for defenders and prosecutors to work so well together, it can truly serve the youth and the community when such relationships exist. One of the fundamental reasons they cite for their success is the mutual respect and understanding of the roles and duties of the “other” side. Mosee knows defense attorneys must zealously represent their clients, and Listenbee is well aware of the duties of a prosecutor in promoting public safety, offender accountability and competency development. Through their efforts, Mosee and Listenbee have shown that these goals are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in 2011, Listenbee, along with Mosee, received an award from the Philadelphia Coalition for Victim Advocacy.
One of the greatest examples of their collaboration is the “Philadelphia Youth/Law Enforcement DMC Curriculum”, a training curriculum for the police academy they pioneered together with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s DMC subcommittee. As part of this training, forums are held which bring together police and young people to improve dialogue and understanding between them and reduce the tensions between the two. It seems fitting that a forum for two potentially adversarial groups – police and youth – were created by two men who have chosen to forgo a strictly adversarial route in an effort to improve outcomes for vulnerable young people in the city of Philadelphia.
Both Listenbee and Mosee are cognizant of and respect their differing roles. Listenbee has acknowledged that the juvenile justice system is designed in a way that gives prosecutors more discretion and authority than the defense bar. Rather than work against this, Listenbee recognized this important role and advocates cultivating a working relationship predicated upon credibility and trust.
Both men also acknowledged the essential roles of experience and the importance of having an in-depth understanding of how the juvenile justice system works. While some prosecutor and defense offices still put attorneys fresh out of law school in juvenile court, both Listenbee and Mosee recognize the need for experienced staff to be working with youth and stressed the importance of recruiting and attracting attorneys who are interested in working with and helping children.
So although advocates across the country are hailing the nomination, prosecutors should be pleased as well. As Mosee has said, “Bob [Listenbee] is a man of moral substance and ultimately does what he does because it is the right thing to do.” And in the end, that’s what this work is all about.