May | June 2013

Interview With OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee
OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee (right) with Attorney General Eric Holder.
OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee (right) with Attorney General Eric Holder.

Robert L. Listenbee, a highly respected public defender and juvenile justice system reformer, was appointed to the position of OJJDP Administrator by President Barack Obama in February 2013 and was sworn in to the position on March 25, 2013. Before his appointment, Mr. Listenbee was chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years and a trial lawyer with the association for 27 years. Following are excerpts from an OJJDP News @ a Glance interview with Listenbee about his priorities for OJJDP and the juvenile justice field.

What is your vision for at-risk and juvenile justice system-involved children?

My vision—and the vision of everyone at OJJDP—is that our country be a place where all our children are healthy, educated, and free from violence. If they come into contact with the juvenile justice system, the contact should be rare, fair, and beneficial to them.

This means that we do everything we can—in the way of prevention, positive youth development, and community-based services for children who are at risk—to keep children from getting into trouble and involved in the courts. If children are charged and enter the justice system, they need to be treated in an equitable way, and they need the best standards of care so they can go on to lead successful and productive lives.

There’s a sea change that needs to take place in the way we approach children in the juvenile justice system; whether it’s in the courts or correctional facilities, people too often forget that kids are different than adults.

OJJDP sponsored a study by the National Academies’ Research Council, and the council has issued a report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, emphasizing the importance of developmental approaches to working with children in the justice system. Research has shown that neurobiological processes in the developing brain play a large role in the impulsiveness, susceptibility to peer pressure, and difficulty in assessing long-term consequences that characterize adolescence. These behaviors generally are transient and recede as youth mature into adulthood.

The findings have significant implications for the juvenile justice system. Because of what science has shown us about brain development, adolescent offenders are by definition less culpable than adult offenders, and they are more capable of changing their behavior because they’re still growing, they’re still developing.

What are your specific program priorities at OJJDP?

Since I arrived here at the Office, I have been discussing priorities with the experts on our staff, the Office of Justice Programs, and the Department of Justice. I have also spoken with juvenile justice experts across the country. I’m happy to discuss some of our current priorities:

left quote The OJJDP-supported National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence revealed that in a given year, almost 40 percent of American children are direct victims of two or more violent acts. right quote

OJJDP supports the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, the most comprehensive study ever conducted on this topic. The survey revealed that in a given year, almost 40 percent of American children are direct victims of 2 or more violent acts, and 1 in 10 are victims of violence 5 or more times. These numbers are of deep concern to me. The violence our nation’s children experience is pervasive. And this exposure is terrible for kids.

Research has shown that regular exposure to violence can interfere with brain development, emotional attachment and healthy relationships, physical health, and educational success. If these public health needs go unaddressed, this becomes a public safety problem. These young people can become the repeat offenders in our juvenile justice system.

Determined to act on the findings of the national survey, Attorney General Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative in September 2010. And as part of that initiative, he appointed a National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence to hold hearings across the country and offer recommendations for a coordinated national effort to reduce exposure to violence.

I was co-chair of the task force along with baseball legend Joe Torre who, himself witnessed domestic violence as a child and now is chairman of the board of the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation.

I’m happy to report that in December, our task force released a final report with more than 50 recommendations. There are too many recommendations in our report to mention in detail here, but they included universal screening, assessment, and treatment for children’s exposure to violence across all systems, including the mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems; universal training for child- and family-serving professionals in recognizing and addressing the impact of violence and psychological trauma on children; stopping the prosecution of children as adults in adult courts, the incarceration of children as adults, and the sentencing of children to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow; providing juvenile justice services that effectively and compassionately address differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender; and setting up a special commission with the Department of the Interior to focus on children in Indian country, where there are extremely high rates of poverty and violence.

We had some great news in mid-April. The Attorney General signed off on our action plan, which is essentially the blueprint that will guide this national effort.

Another important project is the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which aims to keep our children in school and out of the justice system. Again, the Attorney General took action in 2011 to launch this initiative in response to some startling research findings.

left quote The Supportive School Discipline Initiative emphasizes positive approaches to modifying adolescent behavior within the context of school rather than suspending and expelling students. right quote

A study conducted by the Council of State Governments in Texas, Breaking Schools’ Rules, tracked nearly 1 million seventh graders for 6 years. The study showed that 60 percent of these public school students were removed from class at least once, and 15 percent had 11 or more suspensions or expulsions between 7th and 12th grades. Only 3 percent of these disciplinary actions were for conduct for which federal law mandates suspensions and expulsions. The overwhelming majority of disciplinary actions—97 percent—were for discretionary offenses, including lateness, truancy, dress code violations, and less serious behaviors that had in the past been handled within the school system.

Among the most disturbing findings was that suspension or expulsion of a student for a discretionary (i.e., nonmandated) violation nearly tripled the likelihood of juvenile justice contact within the next academic year.

The Supportive School Discipline Initiative emphasizes positive approaches to modifying adolescent behavior within the context of school rather than suspending and expelling students.

We’re also continuing our critically important work in the area of juvenile justice reform, a central aspect of OJJDP’s mandate and mission. Since the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was first passed in 1974, significant progress has been made but there’s still work to be done, particularly in the area of reducing DMC. And there are new issues that weren’t taken into account 40 years ago that we need to focus on—such as the gender-specific needs of girls in the juvenile justice system; those needs at the moment are largely not met.

We’re moving forward in many areas. Through our partnership with The Annie E. Casey Foundation and our training and technical assistance grants to the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, and the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, OJJDP has been working to promote alternatives to juvenile detention, reduce reliance on secure confinement, and stop racial disparities and bias.

In a new public-private partnership, OJJDP and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are jointly supporting innovative and effective reforms in treatment and services for youth involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The targeted reforms are in the areas of mental health screening and risk/needs assessment, mental health training for juvenile correctional and detention staff, disproportionate minority contact reduction, and effective practices to reduce recidivism and out-of-home placement and to improve correctional alternatives for youth in the juvenile justice system with a history of maltreatment.

In 2011, we launched the National Center for Youth in Custody in response to the call from the field for assistance, leadership, and support to improve and reform youth detention and correction facilities and adult facilities housing youthful offenders. In 2010, the Office created the National Girls Institute, which is a research-based training and resource clearinghouse designed to advance understanding of girls’ issues and improve program and system responses to girls in the juvenile justice system. These are just a few examples in a broad array of OJJDP programs and activities in the area of juvenile justice reform.

left quote Almost 80 percent of human trafficking cases involve sexual exploitation, and most of the victims are women and children. right quote

We're also working hard to address domestic child sex trafficking. Almost 80 percent of human trafficking cases involve sexual exploitation, and most of the victims are women and children. Our Survey of Youth in Residential Placement shows that 42 percent of girls in custody have experienced past physical abuse, as compared with 22 percent for boys, and 35 percent have a history of sexual abuse, as compared with 8 percent for boys. Many of these girls desperately need a range of trauma-informed medical and social services; what they do not need is to be locked up.

The Office has a longstanding commitment to combating sex trafficking—a problem made more challenging by widespread access to the Internet. Established in 1998, OJJDP’s 61 Internet Crimes Against Children task forces represent more than 3,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. They are dedicated to developing effective responses to the online enticement of children by sexual predators, child exploitation, and child obscenity and pornography cases.

The OJJDP-supported National Center for Missing & Exploited Children offers critical intervention and prevention services to families and supports law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels in cases involving missing and exploited children. In addition, OJJDP's AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program convened the Trafficking in Persons Symposium a little over a year ago to examine child sex and labor trafficking in the United States. A report released last July summarizes best practices for responding to child trafficking, as identified by the 127 symposium participants. The report served as the foundation for the development of the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program’s current training programs for states and communities.

In addition, OJJDP has funded the Institute of Medicine and the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academy of Sciences to study the commercial sexual exploitation of minors in the United States. This fall, the committee of independent experts conducting the study will release a report recommending strategies to respond to the problem, new legislative approaches, and a research agenda to guide future studies in this area.

Youth violence is another issue of deep concern to me. In 2010, at the direction of President Obama, the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention was created by the Departments of Justice and Education in cooperation with many other agencies. The initiative was created because, in spite of consistent decreases in juvenile violent crime arrests nationwide since 1994, many localities continue to seek information and strategies to better prevent and respond to youth violence. Currently, the forum is active in Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Memphis, TN; Salinas, CA; San Jose, CA; New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; Minneapolis, MN; and Camden, NJ. It brings together agencies from across the federal government, corporate partners, nonprofit groups, neighborhood and faith-based organizations, and youth representatives.

Our Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration program, active in Detroit, MI; Philadelphia, PA; Los Angeles, CA; and Baton Rouge, LA, aims to reduce violence through the replication of programs such as the Boston Gun Project, the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model, and the Cure Violence model.

So, there are a lot of exciting things going on at the Department of Justice and in our Office.

A major change at OJJDP is the reorganization of the Office. How will the reorganization benefit the juvenile justice field?

left quote The reorganization will enhance OJJDP’s ability to support the juvenile justice community in its efforts to serve our nation’s children and their families. right quote

OJJDP’s reorganization truly reflects the full breadth of the work we do every day: state and community development; audit and compliance; juvenile justice system improvement; youth development, prevention, and safety; and innovation and research. The new structure will enhance OJJDP’s ability to support states, the District of Columbia, the territories, tribal nations, and the broader juvenile justice community in their efforts to serve our nation’s children and their families.

I won’t go into all the details of the reorganization here, but here are a few ways in which the reorganization will have a positive impact:

  • The new State and Community Development Division will position OJJDP to have a more sustained and closer working relationship with the states. Staff will function not only in their traditional roles as managers of formula and block grants, but as ongoing consultants to the field. Staff assistance will include dialog regarding the needs of states and emerging practices, the identification of helpful resources and sources of funding in the federal government and the private sector, and better coordination of the Office’s training and technical assistance (TTA) resources with states and localities.
  • We have separated the audit and compliance functions from the programs side and placed these functions in the Budget and Administration Division. We now have a small, highly skilled group working only on audits and compliance to fulfill the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act’s core requirements. These changes will help us expedite our work with the states in audit and compliance and offer a range of specialized assistance and expertise.
  • The Juvenile Justice System Improvement Division oversees programmatic grants and policy initiatives that promote juvenile system reform and improvement, a key priority at the Office and throughout the juvenile justice field. Many projects related to law enforcement, the courts, corrections, and other justice system components are now coordinated and managed together in this division. Examples include the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, National Center for Youth in Custody, reentry projects, and drug courts.
  • The new Youth Development, Prevention, and Safety Division includes not only the Internet Crimes Against Children program, AMBER Alert program, and Children’s Advocacy Centers, but also all of our mentoring programs. In addition to child protection, the new division highlights the priority the Office places on prevention and positive youth development.
  • The new Innovation and Research Division brings together and coordinates OJJDP’s research, TTA, performance measurement, and communications efforts. This coordination will help ensure that the latest research findings more effectively inform TTA, best practices, and the Office’s communications outreach to the juvenile justice field.

OJJDP used to have a separate Policy Division. We now have policy experts working in every division. This more accurately reflects the way we work at OJJDP: policy informs every aspect of our operations and programs, and it’s central to everything we do.

As you look ahead, what legacy do you hope to leave as Administrator?

I would hope that part of that legacy would be the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The reauthorization will address an array of challenges presented by the valid court order exception, prioritize youth's right to access to qualified counsel, and strengthen the disproportionate minority contact provisions of the Act.

I am also hopeful that while I am Administrator at OJJDP that we can develop the tools and lay the groundwork to achieve substantial reductions in youth violence and children’s exposure to violence in rural, urban, suburban, and tribal areas throughout the nation. Along with this effort, we must also develop the institutions and professionals to mitigate the effects of that violence on our children. 

I also would envision the education, public welfare, and juvenile justice systems substantially reducing the flow of children from our schools into the juvenile justice system. We must seize this great opportunity that has been provided to us by an array of public-private collaborations and partnerships.