The Trump administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) have instituted policymaking by erasure. These agencies are rolling back juvenile justice data collection, rescinding manuals on best practices and changing policy language.
While many of the key factors impacting juvenile justice are rooted in local policies and practices, the federal government plays a critical leadership role in research, grant-making and policymaking. Such leadership can provide a national perspective for understanding state developments and ensure a broad vision for transformative juvenile justice reform. These recent policy decisions by OJJDP are of serious consequence and threaten the safety of young people and our communities.
OJJDP was created in 1974 to provide national leadership on juvenile justice. One of OJJDP’s key focus areas has been addressing racial and ethnic disparities (RED) or disproportionate minority contact (DMC). While youth arrests have dropped, RED remain deeply ingrained in systems as shown by numerous studies. OJJDP administers the federal Title II Grant Program, which is intended to improve state and local juvenile justice systems. As part of their application for Title II funding, states are required to collect data on nine areas of disproportionate minority contact.
For more information on Racial-Ethnic Fairness, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness
OJJDP Administrator Caren Harp has made a series of troubling public statements about the agency’s changing mission. In a March JJIE article, she noted how the juvenile justice system “drifted a bit to a focus on avoiding arrests at all costs and therapeutic intervention. It went a little too far to the side of providing services without thinking of short-term safety.” Her comments assume a false dichotomy between providing services and considering community safety. Carp wrote in a June JJIE op-ed about changes within OJJDP, where she notes that a new approach for Title II is necessary, given states have improved data collection while RED outcomes remain stagnant.
Simplifying, changes in language
Harp’s comments have been followed by troubling policy decisions. As of October 2019, the agency will introduce a streamlined Title II application. This aligns with the agency’s approach to simplifying data collection and reporting, a red flag for those who care about truly understanding how the juvenile justice system targets youth of color and their communities. Harp highlights that amid this data simplification, state plans related to DMC will be posted on OJJDP’s website for taxpayers.
However, unless you’re a regular visitor to OJJDP's website, the impact of such information is questionable. It gives the appearance of transparency, but should be a cause of great concern as Harp promotes “less regulation and a greater focus on evaluating impact.” The new Title II application will be simplified with vague open-ended questions rather than rigorous data collection. In place of comprehensive data collection, Harp notes that states’ successes and challenges will be posted on OJJDP’s website.
This move by OJJDP parallels other recent damaging juvenile justice policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered DOJ to rescind juvenile justice training manuals. There is also concern over recent reorganizing of OJJDP research positions. Per a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation, OJJDP’s website has placed less of an emphasis on key juvenile justice issues, which include solitary confinement, the treatment of girls and RED.
Language matters. How DOJ and OJJDP frame these issues directly influences the types of policies both agencies adopt (if they even make any mention of the issue at all).
Leading national juvenile justice organizations such as the Burns Institute (BI), the Sentencing Project, the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Campaign for Youth Justice have expressed shock and serious concern with OJJDP’s new policies. Tshaka Barrows and Laura Ridolfi of BI note that DMC policies are not the problem, but instead “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.”
We should listen to them. OJJDP’s policies will hurt young people and communities across the country. Now is the time to voice our concern.
Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's director of policy and development.