JJIE.org spoke on the phone last week with defense attorney Robert Listenbee Jr., who was recently picked by President Barack Obama to lead the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. The office has not had a permanent administrator for four years. Listenbee, who has not yet received a formal federal appointment, continues to head the juvenile unit at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia in the meantime.
Listenbee spoke about the insights he brings to the national stage based upon his experiences with the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, and how his time as a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, and his stint as a secondary school teacher in Kenya as a young Harvard student sparked his passion for working with young people. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
JJIE: When will the appointment happen? Have they given you a timeline?
Listenbee: There’s no timeline. Not yet.
JJIE: Why did you want the job?
Listenbee: I’ve had the benefit in engaging in extensive reform efforts in the state of Pennsylvania, first in my office, the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, where we completely revamped the juvenile unit to address the unique needs of children. After that, I spent a lot of time working with a large number of different organizations in the state, but perhaps the most significant was working for the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which tackled the problem of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania.
There we had over 4,000 children who were directly impacted by a judge and a judicial system that ignored the constitutional rights of children, that placed children without benefit to counsel, that held children to waive counsel without proper colloquies, that addressed issues of children being in court without lawyers by not appointing lawyers.
And kids were sent away, they were hurt, they were sent away without just cause. That kind of thing really was of deep concern to me, and I worked with a very outstanding group of professionals here in this state who reformed the system in Luzerne County and established some parameters for reforming the entire juvenile justice system here in Pennsylvania. That, more than anything else, ignited my deep passion for working on the national level.
And there were a lot of reforms that came out of the Interbranch Commission that have been implemented as direct policy, either as laws or as new rules promulgated by the Supreme Court’s juvenile justice committee, so I’m very excited about all that.