DOJ official advocates for juvenile justice reforms

I expected the luncheon keynoter at the American Bar Association–American Psychological Association “Confronting Family and Community Violence” meeting in Washington, D.C., last week to be informative, even impressive, but not necessarily inspiring and motivating. Robert L. Listenbee Jr. was all of these. Demonstrating how important cross-disciplinary conversations are, his words were as relevant to the psychologists in the room as they were for the lawyers.

Listenbee, administrator of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, served as co-chair, with former Yankees manager Joe Torre, of the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. He mentioned the importance remembering what the ACE Study tells us when he talked about how Joe Torre’s childhood trauma impacted his adult life. Here are a few other highlights of his talk on May 2:Image

—The $1.5 million Academy of Sciences report “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach” has been criticized for not providing new knowledge, but the NAS-certification (an institution he noted

that was founded by President Lincoln) adds credibility to valuable research findings. The report identifies a “pathway forward,” and will help advance developmentally appropriate treatment. The success of anti-smoking and seatbelt campaigns provide valuable lessons—with persistence, minds can be changed and lives can be saved.

—Racial and ethics disparities persist (crime rates are consistent across races but rates of justice involvement are dramatically higher for children of color). He recommended a video on Connecticut’s criminal justice system that includes a segment on training law enforcement to recognize bias (this segment is part of an hour-long documentary “The Color of Justice” done by CTTV; the 6-minute segment begins at 20:48 and shows how the same children dressed differently are perceived by law enforcement in dramatically different ways).

—Evidence-based programs are needed. Juveniles inevitably come back to their communities and need help. After screening for mental health, substance abuse and disability, those left “really need help.”

—His involvement in the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence leads him to conclude that every child should be screened (and treated if necessary) since the majority of children are exposed to violence.

—Changes are needed in assessments in the juvenile justice system. Some child advocates and juvenile justice reformers believe that assessments place too many children in high-risk categories that do not belong there, initiating involvement in the justice system that could have been avoided. Listenbee believes there are protocols and shields to protect children, including protecting their privacy.

Defending Childhood Initiative lead by U.S. Attorney General Holder showed that more than 60% of children are exposed to crime, abuse, and violence. Many are bullied and feel threatened. Knowing that trauma can be prevented and treated, resources must be marshaled to mitigate the impact of violence and abuse.

—There is a promising new law in Georgia prohibiting confinement for status offenders. (Status offenses include those committed by juveniles such as truancy, curfew violations, purchase of cigarettes.) Other states (Texas, Kentucky, Hawaii) are acting similarly. Secure confinement in residential facilities is expensive ($262,000 per year in New York and $80-90,000 in Kentucky) and not developmentally appropriate.

—The effects of historical trauma experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives are reflected in the suicide rates and other consequences for these populations.



  1. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for this great summary of the DOJs work on prevention exposure to violence. I’m involved in a project in Philadelphia funded by DOJ under their Safe Start Initiative – another program aimed a preventing children’s exposure to violence – where we are piloting embedding SELF, an evidence informed trauma specific intervention for caregivers in an existing Early Head Start Program. Our experience to date is demonstrating that 1) our caregivers have high rates of unresolved trauma 2) our young children (0-3) have already had exposure to violence and 3) an intervention which is home based and uses a psycho-educational non-linear approach is well-received. Preliminary data also indicate the intervention is effective. We are about 2/3 of the way through the project and hope to have positive outcomes to share in about a year.


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