March | April 2012

Interview With OJJDP Acting Administrator Melodee Hanes

Photo of OJJDP Acting Administrator Melodee Hanes.
OJJDP Acting Administrator Melodee Hanes.
On January 18, 2012, Assistant Attorney General Laurie O. Robinson announced the designation of Melodee Hanes as the Acting Administrator of OJJDP. Hanes served as the Acting Deputy Administrator for Policy at OJJDP for the past 2 1/2 years. Before joining OJJDP, Hanes worked for 16 years as a deputy county attorney prosecuting child abuse, sexual assault, and homicide cases and for years trained and lectured on child abuse-related topics. Following are excerpts from an OJJDP News @ a Glance interview with Hanes about her plans and priorities for OJJDP.

Can you provide an overview of your activities these past few months?

The phones have been ringing constantly, a lot of people have been knocking on my door and streaming through my office. Senior management has had meetings with everybody—federal officials, advisory groups, grantees, former grantees, researchers, and others. We've had a lot of inquiries from Capitol Hill. As a political appointee, I see this as a great opportunity to engage in significant policy discussions and to make significant policy changes.

We're also looking at restructuring OJJDP. One of the goals of the restructuring is to improve information sharing and communications between all sectors of our office and between OJJDP and the juvenile justice field as a whole. Also at the top of our list is a more sustained and closer working relationship with the states. In addition, the restructuring will better position us to effectively carry out our research mission and training and technical assistance. We're still ironing out the wrinkles of the restructuring. As a management team, we're working in an open and transparent way. The entire staff has been actively providing insights and advice throughout this process. There's a lot we're trying to accomplish. This is both a challenging time and an exciting time at OJJDP.

What do you perceive to be OJJDP's challenges and opportunities?

OJJDP's budget has been cut dramatically in the last several years. Money is a scarce commodity these days. But the silver lining in the cloud is that budget cuts are forcing policymakers and the public more and more to ask: Which approaches really work for our youth and which do not? Which approaches both enhance public safety and are a wise use of taxpayer dollars? Because budgets are tight, we have a great opportunity to encourage policymakers to reexamine the costly and ineffective ways business has been done in the past.

left quoteThe American public is overwhelmingly on the side of prevention and rehabilitation for nonviolent youth offenders.right quote

Three-quarters of incarcerated youth in this country are locked up for nonviolent offenses like drug offenses and technical violations of parole. We want to make sure to hold kids who have made bad decisions accountable for their actions. That goes without saying. But, many of these youth would be far better served by rigorous rehabilitation, intensive treatment, mandatory counseling, and job training. This is doing right by our kids. And it's also doing right by public safety. It's a less costly and more effective use of taxpayer dollars. Research tells us that this approach is far more effective in preventing repeat delinquency and in making our communities safer places to live.

Research over the last 15–20 years has given us evidence-based practices—strategies that work, that have a proven track record—for helping at-risk youth and for getting those who have broken the law back on track. Our job is to disseminate these strategies, and of course we're doing this to a great extent every day—through training and technical assistance, Webinars, our online Model Programs Guide, and our publications. But we need to do more.

Our high recidivism rates certainly indicate that locking up youth is not the answer, and that locking up kids does not, in the long run, make communities safer.

Do you think the public supports this point of view?

Here's an interesting fact. The American public is overwhelmingly on the side of prevention and rehabilitation for nonviolent youth offenders. A recent poll by the Campaign for Youth Justice showed that a full 78 percent of the American public believes that juvenile justice should be focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than incarceration and punishment.

What are your priorities for OJJDP?

One area that needs much more attention is children's exposure to violence in this country. The findings of the OJJDP-sponsored National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence were really disturbing. Our study showed that most youth in the country are exposed to violence in their daily lives. More than 60 percent—yes, that's right, 60 percent—have been exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities.

Research tells us that children exposed to violence suffer some pretty bad outcomes. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer from depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic disorders; fail or have difficulty in school; and become delinquent and engage in criminal behavior. We also know that early intervention works in countering the effects of this violence. We know that high-quality programs that include effective mentoring give youth resiliency and foster healthy development.

Our Attorney General, Eric Holder, is deeply committed to addressing this issue. His Defending Childhood initiative directs resources for the express purpose of reducing children's exposure to violence, raising public awareness about its consequences, and advancing research on ways to counter its negative consequences. OJJDP is providing the training and technical assistance to demonstration sites across the country that are implementing best practices as part of Defending Childhood. And, as I mentioned earlier, we've got some of the best researchers in the country working on this issue in our National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, which continues to release findings informing our work on the issue. So this is a major priority.

Another important issue is addressing school discipline policies that push kids out of school and into the justice system. Last summer, an important study, "Breaking Schools' Rules," looked at the relationship between student success and discipline in Texas. The study validated what many of us have suspected for a long time: we have overused and inappropriately used suspensions and expulsions as a way to discipline children to the detriment of student learning and staying in school. These inappropriate school disciplinary practices put youth at greater risk of dropping out, illegal behavior, and entry into the justice system.

left quoteInappropriate school disciplinary practices put youth at greater risk of dropping out, illegal behavior, and entry into the justice system.right quote

OJJDP does research to support best practices, and one of the things we've learned is that the minute a youth sets foot in detention or confinement, their prospects for success and having a job decrease dramatically and the likelihood that they will end up in the adult criminal system increases exponentially.

Last July, we worked with the Attorney General and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to launch a partnership between the Departments of Education and Justice to reduce the use of inappropriate school disciplinary practices. I'm really excited about the progress so far. Within a month of launching the initiative, we had staffed a Justice–Education working group and several cross-agency teams to carry out the work of the initiative. We'll be using everything at our disposal—information, education, training and technical support, and guidance—to help everyone—teachers, principals, school resource offices, probation officers, judges, school nurses, parents, and students—get access to the tools they need to help make the needed changes. We've had a lot of interest from philanthropic organizations in helping us with this effort.

There are so many other issues we need to address. We're committed to working closely with states in our Formula Grants program to continue encouraging compliance with the core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act [of 1974, as amended]. Those requirements include making sure kids who commit status offenses like truancy are not incarcerated, reducing disproportionate minority contact within the juvenile justice system, and making sure youth are not locked up in adult jails and prisons. This is a real challenge because the budget for the program has been cut way back. We're also working to help youth in Indian country, to develop and implement effective alternatives to juvenile detention, to continue our research on best practices, and a whole range of other priorities. Times are tough. Which means we have to do more with less. And we are doing that. We have started to work creatively with partners in the private sector to leverage resources and dollars. Dollars are scarce. But we have to keep moving ahead.

You've provided a good overview of your priorities for OJJDP. On a more personal note, can you tell us how you came to be interested in children's issues?

My interest in law and public policy really came from my parents. I was born in Iowa, and my dad was a lawyer with an agency that has since become the Department of Veterans Affairs. We had many, many discussions about social and economic issues and, sparring with him, I learned to think analytically and critically. My mom was an aide to then-Gov. Harold Hughes [D-IA], which gave me a love of politics and also a drive to work in the policy arena.

In terms of my interest in children's issues, the quintessential moment came when I was a young lawyer and a brand new prosecutor. One day, a detective walked into my office with photographs of a 5-month-old little girl—she was called Baby Hannah—with human bite marks all over her face, a subdural hemorrhage from being violently shaken, and 14 broken bones. It was sickening to look at the photos of what had happened to that beautiful baby. Baby Hannah was exactly the same age as my own daughter. But the connection was even closer. She and my daughter were born in the same hospital. Her mother and I were in the same Lamaze class, and we had the same obstetrician.

left quoteChild abuse is not out there in some distant place. It's happening all the time right here, in our own neighborhoods. That's on my mind a lot these days, because April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.right quote

I was a prosecutor, but I was also a mother. I had an instant, visceral reaction that I had to do everything possible to protect that child. I prosecuted that case, and many other child abuse cases afterward. That commitment to children's justice and safety has stayed with me over all these years and will stay with me always.

As the case of Baby Hannah shows, the terrible truth is that child abuse goes on all the time everywhere. It's not out there in some distant place. It's happening all the time right here, in our own neighborhoods. That's on my mind a lot these days, because April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

What legacy do you hope to leave as Acting Administrator?

We need to do a better job of getting our message out. We are  the voice for America's children. As the only federal agency focused specifically on at-risk and justice-system involved youth, OJJDP has the ability to use the bully pulpit of the federal government to speak out and be listened to on juvenile justice issues. We're well positioned to bring issues to the forefront and to raise public awareness. An important legacy would be a larger, more informative, and visionary presence in the juvenile justice arena.