Making a Difference: On the Front Lines With
OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik


The journal's On the Front Lines series features interviews with leading authorities on juvenile justice and related youth issues. These experts have earned their credentials on the front lines in the struggle for a better tomorrow for today's youth.

As Shay Bilchik notes in his From the Administrator message in this issue, "true progress requires designing and implementing changes that enhance the well-being of others." Knowing our readers' commitment to improving the ability of our juvenile justice system to respond to the needs of its clientele, we think you will find Mr. Bilchik's perspective on where we have been and where we should be going insightful and challenging.

Juvenile Justice: More than two decades ago, Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [JJDP] Act. Do you believe the vision of its creators and its subsequent implementation have passed the test of time? Has the Act really made a difference?

OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik shares insight with the editor
OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik shares his insights with the editor

Shay Bilchik: A tremendous amount of good has been accomplished under the JJDP Act since its enactment in 1974. The Act has set a standard and established a framework within which we can develop an effective juvenile justice system. It has promoted sound planning by involving key players at the State and local levels in deciding how Federal assistance should be focused.

For more than two decades, the JJDP Act and the bipartisan principles on which it is founded have fundamentally changed the way we deal with troubled youth. In part, this change has come about through the implementation of the Act's core requirements -- the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO) and nonoffenders, separation of juvenile offenders from adult criminals in correctional settings, removal of juvenile offenders from adult jails, and addressing the disproportionate confinement of minority juveniles.

But as important as it is for us to maintain these goals, the core requirements are simply the beginning of what we have achieved under the Act. With input from diverse disciplines, the juvenile justice planning process has been strengthened and the quality of treatment provided juvenile offenders has been improved. Juvenile justice systems once infamous for bureaucratic intransigence and punitive practices are now renowned for their innovative community-based focus on prevention, rehabilitation, and accountability.

Juvenile Justice: As you noted, in 1974 the JJDP Act required States to remove status and nonoffenders from secure confinement -- a requirement commonly called DSO -- and to separate adult and juvenile offenders as a condition for receiving Federal funding for juvenile justice programs. How successful have the States been in meeting these core requirements?

Shay Bilchik: The DSO provision was based on the realization by Congress and the States that the needs of noncriminal juveniles were not being met. Status offenders were being confined in facilities where they simply did not belong, including jails and lockups for adult criminal offenders. As first-time truants, ungovernables, or runaways, these youth were often locked up in facilities where they were endangered by delinquent juveniles and adult offenders and where they failed to receive appropriate services.

While some States may have initially perceived the DSO requirement as an infringement on States' rights, for others it served as a catalyst for reform. Alabama, for example, met the DSO requirement by creating alternatives to institutionalization for status and nonoffenders and en-acting legislation granting the State's Department of Youth Services sole authority to license juvenile detention facilities.

In other States, the DSO requirement enhanced reforms already under way. In New York, for instance, the DSO requirement focused existing efforts to reform the State's juvenile justice system and helped win the support of criminal justice officials while providing critically needed seed money to develop innovative DSO programs.

Have the core requirements made a difference? The numbers speak for themselves. The overall number of status offenders reported to be securely confined in the year each State entered OJJDP's Formula Grants Program was about 170,000 [171,872]. By the end of 1995, the number of DSO violations had been reduced to less than 4,000 [3,711]. The 1995 Compliance Monitoring Summary found the 48 States and 7 jurisdictions reporting compliance with the DSO requirements with at most de minimis violations. Thirty-eight States and jurisdictions reported zero violations of the separation of juveniles and adult offenders, and the rest met the compliance criteria established by the Formula Grants regulations.

Juvenile Justice: In view of such substantial progress, is it necessary to maintain such core requirements in Federal law?

Shay Bilchik: Absolutely. In part, to maintain the substantial progress just described, but also because the numbers do not tell the whole story. Consider the following account that illustrates why Congress enacted the core requirements in the first place and why they should be maintained.

A 15-year-old girl who voluntarily returned to her parents after having run away from home was placed in a county jail by a juvenile court judge to teach her a lesson. On the fourth night of her incarceration, she was sexually assaulted by a deputy jailer. Subsequent litigation revealed that the juvenile court judge routinely followed this punitive policy even with first-time truants. It was discovered that over the previous 3 years, more than 500 juveniles -- many younger than 15 years old -- had been locked up in the county jail, often for status offenses. On the day on which the trial was scheduled to begin, the county signed a consent judgment under which it agreed to stop confining children in the county jail for any reason.

Similar stories, some involving suicide, led Congress and many State legislatures to conclude that, with the exception of repeat status offenders, young people should not be confined in a secure juvenile facility with delinquent youth and in no instance should they be detained in an adult jail or lockup.

Juvenile Justice: As you have indicated, significant progress has been achieved under the JJDP Act, but even the good can be made better. Do you see any way in which the Federal role in supporting our Nation's juvenile justice efforts might be streamlined or otherwise enhanced?

Shay Bilchik: There's always room for improvement. We must adapt our solutions to the problems that challenge us as they evolve. Earlier we talked about the core requirements. I support these fundamental protections that achieve the goals of ensuring the safety of youth involved in the justice system and providing protection for the public by holding juvenile offenders accountable for their acts. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but I believe -- as President Clinton does -- that they require greater flexibility in the partnership between local and Federal Government.

I joined the Department of Justice after having served 16 years as a prosecutor in Florida, where I learned the realities of youth crime and violence first hand. My experience has convinced me that a strong juvenile justice system is essential to combating delinquency. My perspective as a former local prosecutor leads me to conclude that the Federal Government has taken away too much flexibility from States and communities. Restoration of a balanced partnership is critical if the basic protections established by the core requirements are to work in the best interests of all concerned. I am convinced that we are close to regaining that balance without abandoning these needed protections for children.

The Federal legislation proposed by the President provides statutory revisions to the core requirements that complement the regulatory changes we put in place at OJJDP last December. These changes create the balance and flexibility required for local policymakers and practitioners to attack juvenile crime and victimization by fostering a true partnership with the Federal Government rather than the adversarial relationship that had developed in some instances in the past.

This evolving partnership is critical to achieving the goals I have outlined. While juvenile crime is primarily a State and local matter, the Federal Government has an important role to play in helping States and communities. That role is to perform functions that are national in scope and best accomplished through Federal action. Since the JJDP Act's enactment in 1974, OJJDP has carried out this crucial Federal role. While the Federal role is a limited one, our capacity to achieve it should not simply be maintained but enhanced.

Juvenile Justice: Applying the criteria you just described, one area in which a Federal role may be indicated is curbing juvenile violence. When we pick up our morning paper and see headlines about kids killing kids, we feel something is terribly wrong in America. When people hear talk of "super predators," they may even become frightened. What are the facts behind the headlines? And what can we do to protect our youth -- and ourselves -- from the violence that appears to be permeating our society?

Shay Bilchik: While we hear an awful lot of talk about predators -- even of a generation of juvenile super predators -- it is simply not true. For starters, only about one-half of 1 percent of juveniles ages 10 to 17 were arrested for a violent crime last year, and of all juvenile offenders, just 6 to 8 percent are serious, violent, or chronic offenders. So to talk of a generation of super predators is not only false but unfair. It fails to recognize the vast majority of youth as good citizens who have never been arrested for any type of crime. Talk of super predators is tabloid journalism that distorts the facts.

There are, however, genuine predatory issues confronting our youth that we need to address. The first question we should ask is where are we headed on the issues impacting youth and their chances for a safe and law-abiding future. The picture is far from promising.

Every day in America 2,600 children are born in poverty, 2,800 children drop out of school, 8,500 children are reported abused or neglected, and 15 children die of gunfire. Add to this overcrowded classrooms, a lack of adequate services and positive opportunities, high rates of divorce, lack of adult supervision, and the breakdown of the extended family.

So while we have a duty to protect law-abiding citizens from the small percentage of juveniles who are serious, violent, and chronic offenders, we should not lose sight of the real predators I just described. It's within this context that we should examine the problem and solve it.

Juvenile Justice: One response to younger offenders committing more violent crimes has been an increase in the number of younger juveniles waived to adult courts. Sometimes these transfers are mandated by State statute. How do you assess the role of waivers?

Shay Bilchik: Even with the recent downturn in juvenile homicides and other violent youth crimes, the juvenile crime rate is still too high. Admittedly, there is a small percentage of serious and violent juvenile offenders who may be best served by criminal prosecution and long-term incarceration. For the vast majority of juveniles who have entered the justice system, however, the juvenile justice system and the services it can provide are better suited to serve their needs.

The juvenile justice system is also best equipped to meet the needs of society. After all, except for the most serious violent offenders, juveniles who commit crimes will be released one day to return to their communities.

Early studies of the impact of waivers have not been particularly informative, but new studies currently under way should prove more enlightening. OJJDP is funding three studies that will use case attribute data, with specific case- and fact-related information, to examine the impact of juvenile court versus criminal court processing by comparing similar juvenile offenders as they work their way through either system. The studies will take advantage of the experiments going on in the States as some change their statutes to place more juveniles under the jurisdiction of criminal court. Comparing trends in case processing and sentencing should shed considerable light on the impact of these changes.

Several studies will also include measures of recidivism for youth processed in juvenile versus criminal court. These studies should give us a better idea of how well society is protected once a juvenile returns to the community from either the juvenile or criminal justice system.

Juvenile Justice: Studies suggest that minority youth are disproportionately confined in juvenile detention facilities. Minority overrepresentation is also reflected at other key points in the juvenile justice system. What are we doing to reduce disproportionate minority representation in the juvenile justice system?

Shay Bilchik: In 1988, Congress added language to the JJDP Act that addresses disproportionate minority confinement, or DMC. National studies have shown that minority youth are overrepresented in secure juvenile and criminal justice facilities across the Nation. While minority juveniles represent just one-third of the juvenile population, their portion of the confined population has risen from a little over one-half [53 percent] in 1987 to more than two-thirds [68.7 percent] in 1995.

States have been asked to gather data on minority juveniles in confinement, analyze that data, and design appropriate programs to reduce DMC where it exists. We are not talking about quotas with numerical goals but programs designed to see that every youth -- regardless of race -- is treated alike by the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile Justice: And have we made progress toward that level playing field?

Shay Bilchik: We certainly have. Most States have completed a research-based assessment and have established plans for intervention through a variety of approaches, including improved detention decisionmaking, cultural competency training, community-based alternatives, prevention, social skills development, and the use of teen courts as an alternative case disposition.

Although we need more time and more evaluations to assess the outcome of these interventions, there are already positive signs. For example, DMC efforts in Hillsborough County, Florida, have contributed to a 5-percent decrease in the number of African-American youth processed in the court in 1994-1995, the first decline in over a decade.

DMC has led to significant, positive, and ongoing changes in State juvenile justice systems as demonstrated by OJJDP's five-State discretionary grant initiative in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, and Iowa. Improvements include recognition of information needs and creation of new resources, development of new community collaboration activities, institutionalized mechanisms for examination of DMC issues, and improvement in local service systems.

Juvenile Justice: As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing our society?

Shay Bilchik: We've already discussed many of the problems preying on America's youth -- dysfunction, if not disintegration, in our families, and deficiencies in our educational and other support systems. The list is lamentably long. The great challenge is responding to them in meaningful ways that go beyond 30-second sound bites on the evening news.

How do we build a system of justice for all -- including kids? How do we develop a network of support for families and children, especially those without the sustenance of a nurturing home?

Juvenile Justice: Those are serious challenges indeed. Do you feel confident that we will be able to meet those challenges? What do we need to be doing now to address them successfully in the future?

Shay Bilchik: I've been involved in juvenile justice for 20 years, and I believe that this is the best opportunity we have had to make meaningful progress on these challenges because it is the first time that we can match our concerns with knowledge about the nature of the problems and the solutions.

First, we need to share information on family, education, and health matters that affect the future of youth and identify the factors that place youth at risk of criminal careers. That is why OJJDP is supporting the use of Community Assessment Centers to address that need.

Second, we must prevent delinquency. We cannot afford to lose the critical opportunities we have to intervene in the developmental paths of at-risk youth and status offenders through proven programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And we must not fail our duty to help children who have been, or are at risk of being, abused, abandoned, and neglected.

Finally, we must implement a wide range of programs to respond to juvenile offenders effectively -- programs like Simpsonville, South Carolina's, Multi-systemic Therapy project, a nonresidential delinquency treatment program that has cut average rearrests by 43 percent.

In the course of our discussion, I've mentioned a few promising programs but there are many more. As I noted at the outset, we know what works. What we need is the commitment and will to do it. If we are to work effectively to prevent and reduce juvenile delinquency and subsequent adult criminality, there must be a substantial, sustained investment -- public and private -- in families and communities and the systems that support them.

Juvenile Justice: Thanks, Shay, for a most enlightening discussion. Juvenile Justice is read by thousands of dedicated juvenile justice professionals and other youth advocates across America. The progress you have described is largely the fruit of their labors. The vision you present of justice for all is one they share. What would you like to say to them if they were here with us now?

Shay Bilchik: The Chinese ideogram for crisis is composed by joining two symbols -- one representing danger, the other opportunity. Juvenile victimization is a crisis, even if it does not always grab the tabloid headlines, and the increase we have seen in juvenile violence is also a crisis, even if it is sometimes exaggerated.

As in any crisis, the crisis of juvenile violence and victimization presents both dangers and opportunities.

The danger is twofold. First, some may see locking up kids and throwing away the key as the solution. Second, others may lose patience with the grueling, often unthanked, labor of working for long-term solutions instead of the quick fix -- which is no fix at all.

We must not, therefore, let the opportunity afforded by "the year of the attack on juvenile crime" fade with yesterday's headlines. Each and every day we should renew our efforts to combat the real predators that prey on kids. Each and every year must be "the year of the child."

I am confident that if we make the commitments and investments needed to implement the reforms required to combat juvenile violence and victimization more effectively, we have the greatest chance ever for success. I thank Juvenile Justice's readers for their contributions to that end.

Juvenile Justice: Thank you.

Shay Bilchik is the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. This interview was conducted for Juvenile Justice by Earl E. Appleby, Jr., Executive Editor

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