President Trump announced his intention to appoint former Arkansas prosecutor Caren Harp to serve as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the division of the Justice Department that oversees federal funding and standards related to juvenile justice.
Harp has been an associate professor at Virginia’s Liberty University Law School since 2012. Her legal career began in the prosecutor’s office for Benton County, Arkansas, the home of Wal-Mart. She then spent eight years as the chief deputy prosecutor for Union County before joining the American Prosecutor Research Institute (APRI), where as senior attorney she led the National Juvenile Justice Prosecutor Center from 1998 to 2004.
That center was later transferred to Georgetown University. Harp returned in 2014 as a training and policy consultant to help fellow former prosecutor Susan Broderick on revamping the juvenile prosecutor standards and guidelines.
OJJDP oversees a juvenile mentoring account, programs to support victims of child abuse and efforts to find missing and exploited children. But its central mission is to manage the federal-state partnership on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which was passed in 1974.
States receive a formula grant in exchange for complying with the four core requirements of the act, which are:
- Not locking up youth for committing status offenses, crimes like truancy that would not be a crime for an adult.
- Removal of juvenile offenders from adult jails and prisons, with very limited exceptions.
- In those very limited exceptions, sight and sound separation of juveniles from adults in facilities.
- Making efforts to research, identify and address disproportional minority contact in the juvenile justice system.
A state stands to lose 20 percent of its formula grant for each requirement with which it fails to comply.
Harp has been an ardent supporter of the community prosecution model, which eschews adjudication as an end goal. According to Harp’s own work on the issue, community prosecution is defined by three things:
- Community participation in identifying problems to focus on and possible solutions.
- Prosecutor-led attempts to solve problems, focusing on the use of “nontraditional enforcement efforts,” such as restorative justice.
- Partnerships with law enforcement, business, schools and other community organizations.
She has also been a proponent of using performance-based metrics to measure the performance of juvenile justice systems and programs. From a paper she co-wrote on community prosecution in 2004:
APRI’s National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center (NJJPC) and National Center for Community Prosecution (NCCP) believe that neither therapy nor punishment alone is the appropriate response to juvenile offending, and that recidivism, the accepted measure for success, is an insufficient standard for the juvenile justice system. The system must, and can, do better.
Recently, Harp has publicly raised concerns about the reliance on emerging science about the spur to juvenile justice reform. She presented on the subject at a recent conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and in May penned an op-ed for the website Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:
Much of the brain science that is influencing the justice system hasn’t been offered into evidence in a courtroom. It hasn’t been subjected to rigorous challenge, or its limits defined or tested. Instead, through an avalanche of media and advocacy campaigns, it has simply been accepted as fact. The problem with this is that researchers working with neuroscience and neuroimaging report that the science is still being developed, and it is not ready for policymakers or the courtroom.
In OJJDP, Harp inherits an agency that many advocates hoped would be a place of influence during the Obama administration, but was instead diminished by reduced appropriations and publicly-aired problems with compliance.
The appropriation for Title II Formula Grants, the primary JJPDA funding stream, declined from $75 million in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. It rose to $55 million in 2015, where it has stayed, but a longtime complementary funding stream called the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant ($55 million in 2010) has been zeroed for the past two years.
In his 2018 budget proposal, Trump requested $53 million for the formula grant. He proposed steeper cuts to the mentoring and missing/exploited children’s account.
While the appropriations dwindled, the agency was under fire for its ability to patrol compliance with the requirements of the JJPDA. Issues with the integrity of the JJPDA compliance process began with Jill Semmerling, a whistleblower within the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), who says that she was sidelined by OIG while investigating problems with compliance monitoring in Wisconsin.
“Congress designed these grants to be earned each year, not to be handed out as entitlements,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a 2015 hearing.
This year, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report revealing that due to internal disagreements, OJJDP had been issuing a “pass” on compliance related to disproportionate minority contact. The report publicly described a tenor of mistrust and animosity between some OJJDP career staff and Obama’s appointed administrator, Bob Listenbee.
Meanwhile, the JJDPA is now more than a decade overdue for reauthorization. For the first time since 2002, both chambers of Congress have passed JJPDA bills, which means reauthorization is one conference committee away from a trip to President Trump’s desk.
But that process is being blocked by one man that, as an Arkansan, Harp is no doubt familiar with: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cotton refuses to budge in his opposition to a major provision included in the House version of reauthorization, which would phase out an exception to the core requirement on status offenders.
The valid court order exception, commonly referred to as the VCO, currently permits judges to incarcerate a youth for a status offense if the offense defies an official court order. In other words: a youth can’t be detained for truancy, but he can be detained for defying a court order to not be truant.
Harp has also worked in the sex crimes unit of the New York Department of Law (2007 to 2009) and served on the Arkansas Public Defender Commission (2009 to 2011).
According to the White House statement announcing her appointment, Harp serves on the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Standards Task Force, and the National Steering Committee for the Vision 21 Project at National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
She is the second appointed OJJDP administrator who will not require Senate confirmation. The job was stripped of confirmation requirement when President Obama signed the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which removed confirmation requirements from scores of appointments that heretofore had required Senate blessing.
Listenbee, Obama’s only appointee to the job in eight years, joined the administration in 2013.