WASHINGTON — By the time she was posing for pictures on the stage of a Hyatt Regency Washington ballroom just blocks from the Capitol with two teenagers with oversized black hoodies that had the words “We Are Not Gang Members” emblazoned on them, the Trump appointee to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention had done a lot of explaining.
The two young men represented the “M” in what had become the most contentious subject on the penultimate day of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference. DMC — disproportionate minority contact — was the subject that came to dominate the end of what had been, until then, a tame conference presentation by Caren Harp, the new administrator of OJJDP.
It was one slide in a presentation that turned a speech about the unveiling of the OJJDP’s new priorities into a raucous referendum on the meaning of DMC and the role of race in warping the system.
Just before Harp took the stage Friday afternoon as the main draw of the conference, Judge Steven Teske, the national chair of CJJ’s executive board, said how impressed the attendees and state delegations had been with her eagerness to listen and be receptive to their concerns.
The presentation’s focus was on how Harp was slashing red tape and eliminating burdensome regulations so the states could focus on innovation and experimenting with what works for them and her office could concentrate on “compliance and programming assistance.” The changes seemed to fit the conference’s theme, “At the Intersections: How Federal, State, and Local Partners Can Work Together to Improve Juvenile Justice." They were familiar tropes, standard positions of Republicans — get rid of bureaucratic obstacles by streamlining the application process to allow states to be laboratories of democracy.
Then the audience of several hundred juvenile justice workers read the first line under a slide titled “Disproportionate Minority Contact”: “We are committed to reducing DMC while maintaining public safety.”
It transformed the conference from tame to tumultuous.
After Harp finished her formal presentation, she invited questions from the room. Nearly all had to do with the phrasing of that one line. Many in the audience said they felt that the sentiment failed to recognize that the problem with disproportionate minority contact is not the behavior of the children, but the prejudices of adults at various points in the system.
One woman stood up and asked Harp why she made that connection between safety and minority contact so explicit.
“I just want to distinguish what we’re suggesting from those historical kinds of things where it’s, ‘We’re going to close the door here, we’re going to shut down this, we’re going to punish you for arresting, we’re going to disincentivize any kind of legitimate law enforcement interaction because we don’t want those numbers,’” Harp explained. “Because that’s not a legitimate strategy in my estimation. And I apologize for the confusion. That’s my failure to communicate.”
The questioner remained unconvinced.
“I think there’s still a misunderstanding … some [minority] kids are there and they shouldn’t be there,” she said. She pointed to a study out of Oregon about disproportionate discipline.
“Kids were being held at a higher level or were being punished, more so than other kids, not because of what they had done but because of biases ...” she said, trying to clarify her question. “When I see that,” she said, referring to the slide, “then you are grouping them all together and saying it’s a public safety issue.”
“I understand that’s what it looks like, and again, I apologize,” Harp replied to the woman. But she never backed off from what the ultimate message was: that law enforcement and public safety comes first, which seemed to miss the point of long-term research around DMC.
Harp seemed to be defending the notion that she wasn’t going to let a fear of arresting minorities get in the way of encouraging law enforcement, the courts and probation from doing their job without apology, echoing tough-on-crime rhetoric that has emanated from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice.
The point audience members were trying to make was that DMC is about children who end up in the system who shouldn’t be there due to biases of law enforcement or because minority youths encounter wildly different outcomes than their white counterparts once in the system. It was not one Harp seemed to agree with.
Soft on crime?
“What I am saying is we are going to work to reduce DMC, we are committed to that,” Harp said. “But we’re not committed to it in the way that perhaps in the past or the programs out there that have done it just simply by ‘We’re simply going to not allow people to arrest other people, you know, we’re not going to allow this arrest, we’re not going to allow this to be a crime anymore, we’re not going to allow this,’ without regard to any other consideration. That’s a mistake. Now, some of those kids should have never been arrested in the first place, you are exactly right,” she said to the questioner. “But some of them should’ve been arrested. And that’s all that [the slide] says.”
Adolphus Graves, chief juvenile probation officer in Atlanta, continued to try to get clarification from Harp on the implication that DMC is about being somehow soft on crime.
He said he was willing to say that the RRI — the relative rate index used to measure DMC in the system — could be improved but he wanted to know if Harp had another tool to replace it with.
“In the simplest terms, the DMC, the work that has been done, has really been essential in providing equity and access to temporary facilities and in a lot of places most importantly for lower-level offenses,” Graves said.
Offering a typical scenario, he asked Harp to imagine that two children from different parts of town, one white and one minority, take a phone. He said he was worried that the message the slide was sending was that DMC is putting the emphasis on the behavior of the minority children and not on the biases of the various adults in the system.
“And the nonminority child goes home with no record court involvement and the minority child being detained, possibly held, because of assumptions from the adults,” Graves said. “So I’m a little concerned that we’re taking the adult aspect of what has led to DMC — I’m stopping short of saying the system impact of system players that has led to DMC being an issue.”
Answering Graves’ question about whether there is going to be a better metric offered by the administration, Harp said it would be wonderful to come up with a new one, and other states can continue to use it.
“We are of the belief that states should compare themselves to themselves,” she said. “I don’t think there’s another state quite like — where are you from,” she asked Graves.
“Georgia, Atlanta,” he replied.
Systemic impact vs. states
“I don’t think there’s another state quite like Georgia, or Arkansas or Kansas or Maine or any of these states,” she said. “They’re unique and they need to work on their problems, their issues and compare themselves to what they did the year before. You don’t need to compare yourself to New York or Colorado or some other state that has a completely different statutory scheme and all different kinds of issues — you work on what your state needs to work on.”
Graves challenged her on that.
“There are some similarities in our disproportionate treatment of some of these children though,” he said.
“Sure,” Harp said.
“Are you all aware of these concerns?” Graves asked. “I’m positive I’m probably not the only one that is concerned about the lack of the systemic impact being present in the way this looks.”
“There is not a disacknowledgement there that those systems issues need to be addressed,” said TeNeane Bradford, an associate administrator for OJJDP’s core protections division.
There were a volley of questions from the audience about this apparent shift in the administration’s understanding of DMC.
“I understand what you are saying, but I think it’s the link that you are putting it with public safety, as if it’s a public safety issue, when a lot of times it is not a public safety issue,” said another woman in the audience.
“I do see your point, I hope you see my clarification,” Harp said.
‘Talking in big-word-using ways’
Amy Donofrio, who runs EVAC, which she describes as a youth-led movement of hope, was perplexed by how Harp kept returning to stressing the “balance” of law enforcement and public safety with DMC.
She said as part of her program she invites law enforcement into her classroom in Jacksonville, Fla. She asks them about statistics that show black young people getting charged with crimes for the same thing that white young people are given civil citations for.
“We ask the person why is that,” Donofrio said. “And without fail no one has an answer. The answer is racism.”
Harp’s presentation and her conflating public safety with DMC reminded her of those classroom confrontations, Donofrio said.
“So this statement right here,” she said motioning to the blue DMC line in Harp’s slide, “to me is like saying: Do you just think black people are violent, because otherwise what are you saying? You can’t make that statement without saying that.”
She said she has taken her students, the young men present wearing sweatshirts that read: “I Am Not A Gang Member,” to Harvard and to the White House. When she comes back to Florida, they are harassed by police. There has never been a time it hasn’t happened, she said. So she was particularly disappointed to hear this from the top leadership out of Washington.
“She didn’t answer,” Donofrio said. “She turned away to the next question, and to me that is really really disturbing.”
DeQuan Franks, 18, one of Donofrio’s former students and a participant in the conference, agreed.
“She was just talking in a hypothetical big-word-using way to say that, basically, minorities are just bad,” he said.
Jaleel Everson, also an EVAC member, said it is crucial that there are voices like his that are getting his perspective to people in positions of influence.
“They’re just going off statistics and numbers and all that,” he said. “They’re not going off of real life experience and what the youth say they go through every day.”
Harp greeted Everson and Franks, shaking both their hands and asked them what they thought of the day.
“There’s a lot of things I agree with,” Everson told her. “And a lot of things I don’t agree with. We all have one goal and that is to make things better for the youth, and with all our experience that’s what we are dedicated to.”
“I am so glad you are here, and you’re right, we can disagree — agreeably disagree — on what approach we want to take,” Harp said to Everson, “but I think our end goal is the same.”
Franks said he was frustrated with the disconnect between the leaders at the conference and the young people.
“A lot of statistics I heard today from people with power and authority and all that, they’ll be like 50 percent of this, and 50 percent of that, all of these percentages,” Franks said. “But ain’t none of that sounds like what I go through on a daily basis when I wake up and walk out my front door.”
Both Franks and Everson graduated from Robert E. Lee High School last year and are now organizers with EVAC. After they had their picture taken together, Harp said she looks forward to meeting with them in the fall and figuring out ways to get their point of view represented in the process.
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See opinion column that responds to this: "OJJDP Administrator’s Words on Racial Disparities Shock Us."