July 22, 2011

A LENGTHY VACANCY at the top in the federal office charged with combating juvenile delinquency and improving conditions of youth incarceration requires President Obama’s swift attention.

The Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) sets standards for custody and care of young people in the juvenile justice system and awards grants to encourage states to meet certain benchmarks. The office has been hampered, to the point of being ineffectual, as a result of serial budget cuts; the absence of an administrator at the helm has only exacerbated its woes.

Under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, the agency has suffered from crippling funding cuts; according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the agency’s budget is now roughly $180 million — a far cry from the $450 million allotted in 2002. The House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies has targeted the OJJDP for additional cuts that threaten to further gut the agency and crimp its ability to provide funds and guidance to states.

The need for a federal voice on juvenile justice is more important than ever. A National Center for State Courts survey released in December showed that budgets of 32 states’ courts — including those specifically designed for juvenile offenders — have been slashed. In Jefferson County, Ala., according to the Birmingham News, layoffs of security officials are poised to result in several courthouse closings and “effectively put on hold . . . most juvenile proceedings.” Dozens of other states have proposed or passed such cuts.

The executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice and other children’s advocates are rightly concerned that the federal government has no responsible leader to protect the work and budgetary needs of the OJJDP. As the campaign correctly pointed out in a recent statement: “There is no voice for children and youth in the justice system to ensure adequate funding, programming and supports are in place in states and localities.”

A former administrator of the agency notes that assuming the reins of the juvenile justice agency involves “a steep learning curve,” even for those experienced in youth justice. The OJJDP appointment could serve as a catalyst for the federal government’s coordination with states that have been financially handicapped and unable to safeguard efforts to protect young people.