The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) strongly rejects the disturbing and dangerous new policy direction of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) that insinuates that public safety is threatened by efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities (RED). This misunderstanding of the purpose and outcome of RED work is the culmination of months of changes at OJJDP that unmask this administration’s egregious disregard of the gravity and pervasiveness of RED and the harmful and lifelong effects on youth of color and their communities.
Disparities conflated with being soft on crime
At the June 2018 Coalition for Juvenile Justice Conference, OJJDP Administrator Caren Harp gave a presentation that said the OJJDP is “committed to reducing [Disproportionate Minority Contact] while maintaining public safety.” This stance is reiterated in an OJJDP statement dated June 28. The statement implies that addressing RED in youth justice — or Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC), an antiquated and, in many communities, erroneous term that the OJJDP still utilizes — puts public safety at risk.
BI firmly rejects the inference that efforts to halt the disproportionality of youth of color who are entangled in the justice system could in any way threaten public safety. In truth, public safety is eroded when youth of color are excessively and unnecessarily exposed to and harmed by the justice system for normal adolescent behavior, behavior for which their white counterparts receive less harsh treatment and discipline. When youth engage in a system wherein they are removed from their families, exposed to punitive treatment and lost opportunities during their formative adolescent years to build positive relationships within their communities, that’s when we have failed to provide the safety that OJJDP claims it is pursuing.
Who are we protecting, and from what? BI adamantly asserts that youth of color need protection from a system wherein one group of people are overtly and consistently overrepresented. Youth of color need safety from historical and structural manifestations of racism that continue to inform our youth justice systems today. Youth of color, in short, deserve respect and fair treatment, and an opportunity for a safe life. This is the purpose of RED work — and should be at the center of OJJDP’s agenda.
Other OJJDP Steps Cover Up Rampant RED
In recent months, the OJJDP has reversed its efforts to address RED. Most alarmingly, they have backpedaled on efforts to require basic and fundamental data collection on RED.
BI resolutely opposes this turn away from the nascent yet hard-fought steps toward creating the conditions wherein local jurisdictions can effectively work toward fair and equitable treatment for youth of color. Data collection is the cornerstone of any response to RED. Without data, the problems aren’t evident. BI urges the OJJDP to require all jurisdictions to not just collect basic data but to ramp up its efforts to provide guidance on how to collect, disaggregate, analyze, distribute and act on data to reduce disparities, and how to engage with and report to the local community about efforts in these areas.
OJJDP has also removed a manual that provided guidance to states on how to address RED. Jurisdictions lack strategies to achieve a measurable and positive impact for youth of color and their communities and families. States need more — and better — guidance, not no guidance. BI supports the incorporation of substantive guidance on strategies shown to reduce RED, including reinvestment in community-based alternatives to system involvement.
In addition to de-emphasizing data collection and removing guidance, OJJDP has also sought to censor language used to examine RED. A memo circulated by OJJDP providing “language guidance” clamps shut conversations around “overrepresentation of minorities,” instead preferring the indistinctive “disproportionate minority contact.” Similarly, they replaced language of “underserved youth” to “all youth.” Without the appropriate language to talk about RED, jurisdictions can hardly be expected to make progress in eliminating such disparities.
A way forward, not backward
The disparate treatment and outcomes that youth of color face today are symptoms of a system that from its inception treated children of color differently. While discrimination and bias at the personal level play a role, disparate outcomes are primarily the result of a set of policy choices — both historical and current — that created and perpetuate structural barriers to success for youth of color. The policy choices we are seeing today move us back to a viewpoint wherein youth of color are viewed as inherently dangerous and unworthy of fair and equitable treatment. This is untenable and unacceptable.
In 2017, upon assessing the OJJDP’s dedication to removing RED, BI turned down a nearly $500,000 grant from the OJJDP to provide technical assistance to jurisdictions. This decision was rooted in a deep concern that we could not effectively complete our important work in promoting equity within justice systems if we were to attempt to work within the framework of this administration. This recent set of moves by the OJJDP reinforces our decision.
BI calls on our Technical Assistance colleagues to join us in rejecting in the strongest terms the OJJDP’s turn away from justice for youth of color. BI looks forward to working with the OJJDP when their priorities and perspectives align with the goal to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities by building community-centered responses to youthful misbehavior that is equitable and restorative.
Executive Director Tshaka Barrows is a founding member of the W. Haywood Burns Institute. He works closely with the executive team to advance the Burns Institute’s mission to protect and improve the lives of communities of color and poor people.
Director of Policy Laura Ridolfi provides technical assistance to BI sites in analyzing whether and to what extent policies and practices contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice systems. She also assists in developing local strategies to reduce disparities.