Robert Listenbee's 10 Points for Juvenile Justice Reform

Vol 33 No 8

Robert Listenbee is a practitioner at heart. Before coming to Washington, DC to head the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) he was a trial lawyer for the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 27 years, leading the juvenile unit for 16 years. He also served on Pennsylvania’s State Advisory Group, which advocates for juvenile justice reforms under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002.

“We have all been on the front lines of preserving the rights of children and protecting children here in this nation,” said Listenbee as he opened his keynote address at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s 30th National Conference, June 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. “When I arrived in Washington, the very first message I heard was that I was here because the advocates had advocated for a person like me to come … I am aware that I’m here to support the views of advocates.”

Listenbee shared “10 points” for juvenile justice reform and asked juvenile justice practitioners to support them. Read on for a summary.

1. Increase federal partnerships with frontline practitioners.

Federal efforts to improve the juvenile justice system benefit from partnering with juvenile justice advocates at the state and local levels. OJJDP is discussing high-level juvenile justice issues with practitioners on the frontlines and Department of Justice representatives are committed to sharing information and resources with practitioners at the state and local levels, as well as learning about their innovations and success stories. This collaboration is key to juvenile justice reform.

2. Engage youth and families.

To bring about change, youth must be at the table. They should not be in the background, there for the first day but not the second, or only present in a ceremonial role. They should be at the table providing insight about policies needed to bring reform. Without youth engagement, juvenile justice reform will not succeed. 

Families must also be engaged in meaningful ways. Families are frequently looked down upon in the juvenile justice system and have a sense of shame. Many parents feel they have failed their children when they enter the juvenile justice system. We must embrace these families and find a positive, constructive role for them. We must see them as partners in juvenile justice reform and value their information and insights about their children as we work on solutions. 

3. Support reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

OJJDP strongly supports reauthorization of the JJDPA, which provides funds to states to improve the juvenile justice system. The reauthorization, sponsored by Rhode Island Senator Whitehouse, is a key legislation coming before the Senate this year. Advocates have a role to play in the reauthorization and are in a position to share concerns about what the act says, and ensure the “asks” of the act are clearly stated and are moving forward. Timing is critical. Advocates who want to have their views included will need to be actively involved in the process.

4. Ensure reforms take a developmental approach and recognize the science.

Scientists tell us that a child’s brain is not fully formed until the ages of 22-25. Science also tells us young people are less culpable, they are capable of redemption and change, and they are not “small adults.” 

The science is so powerful that the U.S. Supreme Court, the American Psychological Association, and the National Academy of Sciences support it. Across the nation, people are behind the science to bring science-based 

reform. Some states are recognizing the science by extending juvenile protections to young people beyond age 18. (See Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach)

There is one cautionary note when looking at the science. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision In re Gault, which came into law in 1967, recognized a juvenile’s right to representation in legal proceedings. Yet today thousands of children go into court without counsel. How many years will it take to implement the science that can transform the life of a child? 

It won’t be until this new science finds its way to universities and into every training for every teacher who goes into a school, and for every lawyer who goes into courtrooms that handle children, that we change the way we deal with children. 

5. Address children’s exposure to trauma early.

If you can address trauma early and tap into the resilience of the child, you can make a difference in that child’s life. Address trauma head on, as they’re doing in New Haven, CT with the Yale Child Study Center. There, a clinician accompanies a police officer to the home when there’s a domestic violence disturbance. The clinician meets with the child, not just the parents. Sometimes the child is brought back to the clinic to further address issues of trauma with the clinician.

In the juvenile justice system, kids often have had multiple traumatic experiences. By the time they arrive in the juvenile justice system, there is no way to peel back those layers and address them. A Department of Justice study, “Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey,” shows about 60% of children are exposed to violence. Other experts say it’s higher—closer to 70%. Unless we address trauma early, we’re going to be challenged to help these children.

6. Bring law enforcement to the table.

A new wave of law enforcement training is occurring across the country. In 2004, the National Association of Chiefs of Police began training all police chiefs in the nation about how to interview and interrogate children consistent with the constitution and knowledge about child development. The MacArthur Foundation is also now working with police chiefs across the nation. In communities throughout the country –Gainesville, Florida, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, Connecticut -- excellent work is underway to address juvenile justice issues with their police officers. 

Together, juvenile justice advocates and law enforcement can create training programs and new curricula that can help police interact with kids more effectively. We’ve had chiefs from many different police departments come into the juvenile justice sphere. We’ve taken youth to national law enforcement training to share their views of law enforcement and give them a chance to hear law enforcement’s views of them, with the goal of reconciling differences. This work breaks down labels and stereotypes and fosters understanding of juvenile and police cultures.

A current Department of Justice program solicitation, Building Communities of Trust in Justice, has a special emphasis on communities of color. The solicitation recognizes that high numbers of youth from communities of color have contact with the criminal justice system and that bias by law enforcement exists. Through this program, the aim is to work with law enforcement to address this issue going forward.

7. Address disproportionate minority contact (DMC).

A recent National Academy of Sciences report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, found that for the last 20 years we’ve been dealing with racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and we have not done a good job addressing them. Through discussions with researchers, practitioners, and service providers, we are starting to understand how to better serve the needs of these youth. From these conversations we know a few things: 

  • We need more intensive training and technical assistance tailored to the communities being served. We don’t need people “parachuting in” who don’t know the unique characteristics of each location.

  • We need partnerships with those in the field to better understand how we’re going to bring about change with DMC in the country. 

  • We need to provide a new structure within OJJDP that focuses on DMC across the department and more resources and DMC initiatives are needed.

 8. Address the school-to-prison pipeline.

Constructive approaches are needed within the juvenile justice and education systems to reduce the number of kids being removed from schools that end up in the juvenile justice system.

In January 2014, the Justice Department, with the civil rights divisions of the Department of Justice and Department of Education, released a guidance package outlining what federal law says about children who are required to be suspended or expelled. 

Preceding release of the guidance package, Texas permitted review of one million students’ school records for a study on the school-to-prison pipeline. A report with the study’s findings, Breaking Schools’ Rules, shared that of the one million students, 60% were suspended or expelled between the 7th and 12th grades. It also reported disparities among children of color and children with disabilities. A school discipline initiative resulted from the report, which led to the guidance package release in January 2014. A consensus report on school discipline was also released in June 2014 by the Council of State Governments based on over 700 interviews with youth.

Some jurisdictions are using creative approaches to address the issue. For example, in Oakland, CA, 350 youth returning to schools from the juvenile justice system were paired with social workers. As a result, the recidivism rate for these youth fell to 23%, a dramatic reduction from what they had experienced before. While the program has not yet been studied and can’t be touted as an evidence-based program that would work everywhere, it is making a difference.

9. Embrace philanthropy.

The role of philanthropy in juvenile justice reform is key. The Pew Foundation is playing a leadership role on juvenile justice reform throughout the country. The MacArthur Foundation has invested $150 billion in juvenile justice reform through its Models for Change program. The federal government is increasingly partnering with foundations around top juvenile justice issues, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives program. Several foundations also provide OJJDP with fellows, such as the Atlanta Foundation and the Casey Family Foundation.

Money is not the only valuable commodity foundations have to offer. Foundations have the ability to bring people together to work on a variety of issues, provide meeting space, and provide resources. Foundations can also help realign goals and priorities, talk to and educate legislators on issues, and develop data-driven programs. When talking to foundations in the community, advocates should look at the variety of resources and assistance they offer, not just money. They should also not be afraid to approach foundations with new ideas.

10. Build confidence in the juvenile justice system.

We have to have faith and confidence in our systems and ensure every child has access to the same services and supports. Of the 1.4 million youth arrested last year, some got counsel when they went to court; some got educated prosecutors; some got judges who knew about innovations going on across the nation and were sympathetic; and some got resources for reentry. However, many youth did not get these supports. 

“Justice by geography” is common and creates inequalities in how youth are served across the country. In rural areas, children have difficulty accessing basic services, particularly mental health and substance abuse services. Similarly, in tribal areas, many resources are not available for children who enter the justice system.

We need to ensure every child has access to the same opportunities in the juvenile justice system. One issue OJJDP is supporting is “Smart on Juvenile Justice,” a comprehensive reform agenda to focus juvenile justice resources on select states. Issues that will be addressed include racial/ethnic disparities, ensuring the right services are in place in underserved areas, the adjudicatory and disposition processes, and aftercare. We’re also ensuring prosecutors are part of the equation, so that they have practice standards and clear roles in the juvenile justice system. 


These 10 points provide a good sense of the current priorities in juvenile justice reform. Collaboration is a clear theme—advocates, juveniles, families, law enforcement and others must be at the table. Top juvenile justice issues are trauma, disproportionate minority contact, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Effective reforms must draw on child development knowledge and science, provide equal opportunities that foster trust in the justice system, leverage federal laws like the JJDPA, and use philanthropy in creative ways.


­Claire Chiamulera is CLP’s editor.


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