Justice Department’s “Invited Award”: Earmarks by Another Name?

Note: This story was corrected on Nov. 7. We stated that National Juvenile Defender Center had won an “invited award” and not for the Juvenile Indigent Defense National Clearinghouse. In fact, the organization won both.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) announced its fiscal 2013 funding with little fanfare, likely because the federal government was shut down on during the last week of September, when most grant awards are announced.

Tomorrow we will get to provide a subject-by-subject analysis of the grants. We start today with analysis of the radically different grant awards process that begs one question:

Is OJJDP making its own earmarks?

It appears that the agency handpicked grantees of more than 100 awards, worth more than $80 million outside of the competitive grant process. And, it may have been done after prospective applicants applied and competed for open grant funds they did not win.

Over the summer, OJJDP Administrator Bob Listenbee unveiled the long-planned reorganization of the agency. That shuffle included the creation of three divisions under the office of the deputy administrator of programs:

  • Juvenile Justice System Improvement Grants
  • Youth Development, Prevention and Safety
  • State and Community Development

In the 2013 award announcements, all three of these divisions show up as separate grant programs in the announcement, even though none of them are Congressional appropriations and were not the names of any specific funding solicitation released by OJJDP for fiscal 2013.

But that is not the truly dramatic change in this year’s funding.  That would be the new type of grant created by OJJDP called an “Invited Award.”

In the private world, some foundations prefer not to accept unsolicited proposals, and will only support those they invite to apply.  In the world of federal money, the closest proxy for that is sole-source funding, also known as a no-bid contract.

OJJDP appears to have created a new brand of non-competitive funding. YSI counts a total of five 2013 funding programs given entirely as “invited awards.”

  • The three new divisions described above
  • Research
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

All told, the agency made 136 grants totaling $83.6 million in those five programs.

So what, exactly, does “invited award” mean? It certainly sounded to us as if OJJDP is selecting which organizations it would like to fund, asking them to apply, and funding them. We asked OJJDP for clarification, and spokeswoman Starr Stepp provided the response, from the agency:

Invited awards describe grant awards where OJJDP solicited applications from specific organizations for funding.  Generally, this includes continuation funding for grantees originally selected through a competitive process and incrementally awarded for the duration of the program period. Invited awards also include programs such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), for example, which is specifically authorized by the U.S. Congress to perform the specific tasks noted in 42 U.S.C. § 5773 and invited to submit a grant proposal.

Alright, but is OJJDP also making “Invited Award” grants to groups that have not already been selected through competition before, and that are not written into law?

We asked that to Stepp, with the example of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which received a $150,000 invited award for a “Juvenile Detention Reform Project.”

The agency response:

“Yes, OJJDP invited the Children’s Center for Law and Policy (CCLP) to apply for a grant award. CCLP, and two other TTA provider organizations, have been working with the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative sites and have developed expertise that is critical to the success and sustainability of the reform efforts in the sites over the multiple-year effort.

OJJDP and the Annie E. Casey Foundation entered into a partnership to expand the JDAI in 2010. JDAI is focused on reducing unnecessary and inappropriate use of secure detention in various sites across the country over a multi-year period.”

It was not long ago that OJJDP was in hot water because Bush-era Administrator, J. Robert Flores, had selected grant winners who ranked poorly in a competitive grant process. Those decisions suggested that OJJDP had wasted the time and effort of applicants who scored better, only to be overlooked in favor of groups with closer ties to Flores.

This situation is, on its face, different. By inviting one organization to apply for one specific project, the agency is not wasting the time of any predetermined losers.

But here’s where this gets confusing to us. There were a lot of specific solicitations issued by OJJDP this year for which there appear to be no award announcements. Then, among the grantees in these three new funding programs, are winners who appear to be getting money for work that is in line with those solicitations.

You have to think those applicants are scratching their metaphorical heads about the end result. There are probably plenty of other organization heads saying: “Um, how do I get invited?”

When we discussed the 2013 trend with one leader at a national organization, she voiced an interesting thought: Is it possible that Congress is somehow influencing these decisions?

YSI can think of no way that is possible unless there was some sort of straight-up backroom deal in which a certain level of appropriations was secured by agreeing to some of these grants.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow, we break down the OJJDP funding by subject.

Youth Services Insider is written mostly by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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