Under the Trump administration, the department that oversees juvenile justice nationwide has made changes to its website that ignore racial inequality and reflect a tough-on-crime approach toward youth.
A new report by the Sunlight Foundation has found that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has deleted webpages that contain information about solitary confinement and how youth of color are overrepresented in jails. The department has also removed language about the prevention and rehabilitation of young people in the justice system.
The OJJDP has a specific mandate to tackle racial disparities, and to provide local juvenile court and law enforcement agencies with the grants and training. But the organizations that receive funding from the OJJDP worry about their ability to pass progressive policies under an administration that seems hellbent on punishing criminals.
Rachel Marshall, federal policy counsel at Campaign for Youth Justice, said the changes to the OJJDP’s website are a throwback to the idea of “superpredators,” a term from the 1990s that is seen as a dog whistle to refer to black youth. “We’re seeing this resurgence of the idea … that young people of color need to be behind bars, versus being given access to the resources and the services they and their families need to become successful young adults.”
The Sunlight Foundation found that certain webpages were removed from the OJJDP site, including those titled “Girls and the Juvenile Justice System,” and “Girls at Risk,” which focused on the overrepresentation of girls and women of color in the justice system.
“Racial equity is so obviously the central issue that the system must take more seriously,” said Nate Balis, the director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Seeing that downplayed and changed and pushed back upon is troubling.”
The department also deleted a page titled “Eliminating Solitary Confinement for Youth,” which stated the department’s commitment to ending this practice and had information about the negative impacts of isolation on youth.
“We know solitary confinement has a horrific impact on adult inmates and it’s even more dramatic when used on youth,” said Marshall.
Advocates are also concerned about changes in language the department has made to its website. “Justice-involved youth,” the term advocates use to reference young people who have been arrested, has been replaced by the term “offenders,” which Balis says sends the dangerous message to kids that their offenses define them.
The OJJDP also removed phrases from the website’s mission statement about how the department supports “coordinated prevention and intervention programs” and provides “treatment and rehabilitative services.”
We’re seeing this resurgence of the idea … that young people of color need to be behind bars, versus being given access to the resources and the services they and their families need to become successful young adults.
Rachel Marshall, federal policy counsel at Campaign for Youth Justice
Representatives from the OJJDP did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment, but spokesman James Goodwin told the Sunlight Foundation: “As part of a normal transition from one administration to another, webpages are removed or archived in order to review content and ensure programs, policy, and other online information is current.”
But experts say these changes send a strong message about the OJJDP’s punitive approach to young people.
“Language matters,” said Sarah Bryer, the executive director at the National Juvenile Justice Network. “[The office is] sending an overt and a covert message around what kind of punishment is OK and who is deserving of that punishment.”
Bryer says the changes to the OJJDP website represent a “false narrative” frequently peddled by the Trump administration about an increase in crime, especially when it comes to immigrants. This year the department created a new grant for law enforcement initiatives aimed at the “gang suppression” of unaccompanied minors, despite the fact that immigrant youth are often themselves the targets of gang violence.
Caren Harp, who leads the OJJDP, has spoken publicly about how the department needs to focus on public safety more than the rehabilitation of youth in the criminal system. In March, she told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange that local jurisdictions had “drifted a bit to a focus on avoiding arrests at all costs and therapeutic intervention.”
She has also deprioritized research on racial disparities by rescinding training manuals on the topic, dismantling the OJJDP’s research department, and cutting back on the data it collects from states about youth of color in the justice system.
While advocates say they have made progressive policy changes on the local and state level ― for example, New York and North Carolina recently passed laws to protect youths under 18 from being tried as an adults ― they are worried about how the punitive agenda being set by the OJJDP will affect their work.
“We look to the OJJDP for guidance and research and data,” said Byers. “When OJJDP sends out a message that some kids don’t matter, and that it’s OK to be inhumane in our treatment [of them] … it’s disappointing.”