Whistleblowers Say DOJ Grants Failed To Protect Kids Behind Bars A Senate panel is investigating the use of federal grant money to states that incarcerated children alongside adult criminals. Whistleblowers have spent years flagging problems with the program.
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Whistleblowers Say DOJ Grants Failed To Protect Kids Behind Bars

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Whistleblowers Say DOJ Grants Failed To Protect Kids Behind Bars

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Whistleblowers Say DOJ Grants Failed To Protect Kids Behind Bars

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We begin this hour with new scrutiny of a federal program that is supposed to protect juveniles in the criminal justice system. It's designed to ensure that they're not locked up alongside adult offenders. A senator is leading an investigation into the use of federal grant money for the program. And NPR's Carrie Johnson reports whistleblowers have helped drive this effort.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Whistleblowers like Jill Semmerling - Semmerling loved her job as a federal agent at the Inspector General Office in the Justice Department. She carried a firearm and a badge to work every day.

JILL SEMMERLING: We were there as a watchdog to ensure that there was no waste, fraud or abuse.

JOHNSON: But when Semmerling started digging into allegations that Wisconsin had been cooking the books to get federal grant money, her own troubles began.

SEMMERLING: It was pretty awful. I had - you know, you didn't know where to turn.

JOHNSON: Here's the issue. A federal law called the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act allocates grant money to states. In return, states are supposed to protect young offenders and make sure they're not housed with adult criminals. But Semmerling had a source who told her Wisconsin had been doing just that - putting kids who were abused in foster care and who ran away in jails next to adult criminals and still collecting federal grant money designed to protect those kids.

SEMMERLING: The whole purpose of the act was to keep juveniles out of adult facilities. And the whole point is that a kid may act out or a kid may do something wrong but I mean you don't ultimately want them to become career criminals.

TOM DEVINE: My name's Tom Devine and I'm the legal director of the Government Accountability Project.

JOHNSON: Devine is also Jill Semmerling's lawyer.

DEVINE: She became a bloodhound trying to find out who was responsible for mixing domestic violence victims with hardened criminals - and to stopping it.

JOHNSON: Semmerling uncovered leads that the practice wasn't isolated to Wisconsin, but her bosses allegedly told her not to go there. Eventually, she says, the Justice Department yanked her from the case altogether.

SEMMERLING: I ended up with an autoimmune disease which I really did not know that I had, but the stress that I endured exacerbated it.

JOHNSON: She ended up taking medical retirement, but Semmerling refused to give up, and she reached out to the federal office that supports whistleblowers again and again. Her lawyer, Tom Devine.

DEVINE: The Office of Special Counsel found a substantial likelihood she was right about all those charges, and they've ordered the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation.

JOHNSON: A Justice Department spokesman says it's committed to ensuring young people are protected from harm inside corrections facilities. Meanwhile, someone else is investigating the issue, too.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: I see it this way - oversight, oversight, oversight.

JOHNSON: That's Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

GRASSLEY: The fact that the Justice Department is not overseeing how juveniles are treated in those instances and they're still getting the federal dollars - then it's the federal administrators that are at fault. And we obviously want to correct that.

JOHNSON: Grassley has made juvenile justice one of his top priorities this year. He sent a letter to Justice this month demanding information about possible fraud in the grant program not just in Wisconsin, but four other states. And he's introduced a bipartisan bill that would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. His legislation includes tougher standards to make sure juveniles are not detained with adults behind bars.

For her part, Jill Semmerling says it's a relief someone is finally listening. She says she hopes states and the federal government will become better stewards of taxpayer money and better protectors of vulnerable young people. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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