In a forum celebrating the Office's 35th anniversary, a panel of six former OJJDP administrators—John Rector (1977–79), Ira M. Schwartz (1979–81), Alfred S. Regnery (1983–87), Vernon L. Speirs (1987–89), Robert Sweet (1990–92), and Shay Bilchik (1994–2000)engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about their tenures, key issues in the juvenile justice field, and the future of OJJDP. The forum, which took place on November 10, 2009, at the Charles Sumner School in Washington, DC, was organized by Youth Today, a monthly publication for professionals in the youth service field. More than 150 juvenile justice experts, senior officials, congressional staffers, advocates, and researchers attended the event. Included among the attendees were Laurie Robinson, recently confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, and Jeff Slowikowski, Acting OJJDP Administrator.
The Office's Early Years
The forum opened with presentations by former administrators Rector, Schwartz, and Regnery, who reflected on the challenges they faced and the accomplishments of the Office during its early years.
Established by the landmark Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act of 1974, OJJDP was authorized to award formula grants to help states meet the goals of the Act, which include "core requirements" to ensure the safe and equitable treatment of juveniles in the justice system. John Rector, who had served in the early 1970s as chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, was one of the architects of the JJDP Act.
As OJJDP Administrator, Rector worked vigorously to ensure that JJDP Act funds fulfilled the objectives of the Act. "We tried to reflect the provisions of the Act . . . into the reality of the Office." OJJDP was still in the early stages of development, and the lines of authority between the Office and higher levels of the Justice Department were a source of contention—especially at the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), then OJJDP's parent agency. Rector worked to establish OJJDP as a separate entity with its own policy, legal, and finance staff.
Ira Schwartz cited the 1980 "jail removal" amendment to the JJDP Act as a major accomplishment during his tenure. Reports about the abuse of youth in adult jails had been repeatedly confirmed by research since the enactment of the JJDP Act. At the forum, Schwartz emphasized the importance of innovative and comprehensive research to OJJDP's mission. Schwartz said the passage of the amendment was an example of "a policy that was based on very good data. It was an easy sell [on Capitol Hill] because we had . . . good information."
In the mid-1980s, the focus of the Office—then under the direction of Alfred Regnery—moved to serious offenders and working more closely with the criminal justice system on juvenile issues. "We shifted the emphasis in discretionary grants to those areas," said Regnery. "There were no earmarks [at that time]. . . . I had broad authority to do what I wanted to do." Other accomplishments cited by Regnery included the establishment of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children—now the nation's primary clearinghouse of information about missing and abducted children—and a National School Safety Center to address crime in the schools.
The Later Years
The second discussion panel featured presentations by former administrators Speirs, Sweet, and Bilchik.
A fundamental mission of OJJDP stipulated in the 1974 JJDP Act was the coordination of federal efforts to address juvenile delinquency. Speirs said his tenure was marked by a commitment to this aspect of the JJDP Act as well as bringing back the more widespread use of systematic procedures for evaluating and awarding grants. He cited among the Office's accomplishments one of the first studies of minors in detention facilities and a conditions of confinement study that had a major national impact. He also stressed the importance of research to developing best practices. He said evidence-based programming was "an emerging issue" as he was leaving OJJDP. "[It] is . . . one of the biggest elements we need to look to in the future," he added.
Robert Sweet said he came to OJJDP "determined . . . to work with the [OJJDP] staff, draw on their knowledge and expertise, their years of service." He committed himself to upholding the mandates of the JJDP Act and objective and fair funding decisions. Carrying out the mandates of the Act proved to be "extremely difficult," Sweet said, on account of "political influences." As a former educator, Sweet said he also focused on the need for literacy and character building. Sweet said illiteracy "was an issue that affected 85 percent of juvenile delinquents. . . .Teaching them to read gives them an opportunity to get a job, be a success in life, and stay out of the system."
Shay Bilchik said he viewed his tenure as Administrator as an opportunity to "lift up the tremendous capacity of the Office, to listen to the field." He said crucial to the success of OJJDP programs is an "Attorney General who supports [the Office], [and an] Administrator who is allowed to be the voice of juvenile justice and . . . who is willing to listen to the field in carrying out that work." Among the achievements of his tenure, Bilchik cited the enforcement of the core protections of the JJDP Act, a commitment to prevention programs, and a focus on children's exposure to violence, alternatives to incarceration, mental health, gender issues, and transfer laws.
Questions and Answers
In question-and-answer sessions following the two sets of presentations, members of the audience engaged in a lively discussion with the former administrators about their perspectives on the Office and important issues facing the juvenile justice field.
One question concerned how best to address the decreases in funding for prevention programs over the last decade. Schwartz said that earmarks "took away a lot of flexibility. . . . [When I was Administrator], there was a lot of flexibility." Bilchik agreed that earmarks pose a serious problem but cautioned, "I also live in the real world. . . . The bigger question . . . is making a commitment through the Administration and the Office of Management and Budget and Congress to fund the Office at the level where it can do its work."
Another topic of discussion was the importance of evidence-based practices and the timely dissemination of information to the field. Speirs said, "Not until the last 7–8 years have we been showing the results of what we're doing, through evidence-based practices. Now we can show a reduction of probation violations by 40 percent. That's what makes decisionmakers decide you're worth investing in." Bilchik agreed. "Previously, we didn't have a voice with the White House, the Office of Management and Budget," he said. "Now we can formulate a strategy and slot the evidence into that strategy."
One audience member asked whether the OJJDP Administrator should continue to be a Presidential appointee. Sweet said this was a "tough issue," alluding to conflicts about decisionmaking authority that have arisen in the past between the Administrator and the Assistant Attorney General—also a Presidential appointee. Speirs supported the concept of a Presidential appointment for the OJJDP chief, saying "If you look at the field of juvenile justice, funding is moving away. The adult system is getting [a lot of] the money. . . . There needs to be a strong federal voice [for juvenile justice issues]."
In response to a question about the role of OJJDP during the reauthorization process, Rector said, "You're in a political context [involving] the Department of Justice, the White House. Once the decision is made, you pull your oar in the same direction as the Administration." Schwartz said he agreed that it was a political process, but "the [OJJDP] Administrator is the manager of the process." Bilchik said the reauthorization process was an opportunity for the Administrator to "talk with congressional staff, the Administration, and the field. The Administrator takes that cacophony to work toward a similar direction.”
Where Are They Now?
Schwartz currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Regnery is publisher of The American Spectator, Sweet is President and cofounder of the National Right to Read Foundation, and Bilchik heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Rector and Speirs are retired.
Resource:The former OJJDP Administrators' presentations may be viewed in full on Youth Today's OJJDP @ 35 Web site. Youth Today will continue to post new material, including videos of the Q&A sessions; additional documents about OJJDP and the JJDP Act; more summaries of the history of OJJDP and the Act, based on documents and interviews with the key players; and up-to-date information about the current reauthorization of the Act.