In Feds’ Juvenile Justice Agency, ‘Reform’ is a Four-Letter Word

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Don’t look for “reform” in the Trump administration’s Justice Department, at least in the language used by its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The agency has issued employees a page with a dozen items of “language guidance” — a table listing “language to avoid” and “language options to use instead” — now that the new administration is overhauling many of the programs and practices of the Obama presidency.

It’s no secret that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ anticrime priorities differ from those of his predecessors.

What has not been obvious until now is that at least in one part of the sprawling Department of Justice (DOJ), there has been a broad shift in the way DOJ employees are supposed to talk about what their agency is doing.

Take the word “reform,” an admittedly imprecise term that is widely used in the criminal justice field to discuss modernization of justice practices.

The guidance issued by the Trump administration says the juvenile delinquency agency, which is known by its initials OJJDP, is to avoid “reform (in the context of juvenile justice)” and instead use “improvement (or similar rewording).”

Similarly, the department is not using the term “summit” to describe gatherings to discuss criminal justice issues. Rather, employees are told to refer to “conference, meeting, etc.”

The Trump Justice Department, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t want to talk about the “Smart on Juvenile Justice Initiative,” which, according to an Obama-era press release, was started in 2014 as part of a “comprehensive review of the criminal justice system to identify and implement reforms to ensure federal laws are enforced fairly and efficiently.”

Instead, employees are told to talking about the program “generally as system improvement work.”

Among other items on the list, employees are told to avoid talking about “underserved youth” and instead should refer to “all youth,” to avoid “substance abuse disorder” and use “substance abuse issue,” and to avoid the phrase “overrepresentation of minorities (in the juvenile justice system” and refer to “disproportionate minority contact.”

The new administration doesn’t want to call crime problems a “public health issue” or “public health concern,” preferring the simpler descriptions “public issue” or “public concern.”

While it is common for a new presidential administration to stop calling attention to initiatives started under the previous presidency, the rationale for all of the Trump administration’s guidance for the juvenile crime agency was not clear.

That is because the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, where OJJDP is located, declined to talk about it. A spokesperson would say only that the guidance was an “internal document.”

The agency gives out many grants to outside organizations, but it was not clear whether the language guidance was provided to all grantees. Some of them have it, which is how The Crime Report obtained it. It also was not obvious whether other units within DOJ were given similar instructions.

Some non-government juvenile justice organizations that have seen the guidance expressed dismay.

For example, one item in the guidance sheet advises staff members to avoid using the terms “system-involved or justice-involved youth,” instead referring to “youth in the system,” “offender” or “at-risk youth.”

Marcy Mistrett of the Campaign for Youth Justice, an advocacy group in the field, said, “We are concerned about [the language guidance] and the changing direction of the agency.”

Mistrett said the law creating the juvenile justice agency “is clear, as is the department’s mandate to serve all justice-involved youth.” Her group works to end prosecuting youths under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

Referring to another item in the language list, the avoidance of talking about “overrepresentation of minorities,” Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), a non-profit advocacy group, said, “Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we can do this work in any genuine sort of way and ignore the fact that young people of color are over represented at nearly every point of contact with the justice system.”

She added that, “CJJ has been, and will remain committed to, combating disproportionate minority contact within our justice systems.”

Former OJJDP head Robert Listenbee. Photo by David Kindler via Flickr

In the last half of the Obama administration, OJJDP was headed by Robert L. Listenbee, Jr., a former juvenile public defender in Philadelphia who had co-chaired then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.

The Trump administration has not appointed an administrator of the agency. Since Trump took office, it has been headed by Eileen M. Garry, a career employee who joined ODDJP in 1995, and then served between 2001 and 2016 in another DOJ agency, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, before rejoining OJJDP last year.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “In Feds’ Juvenile Justice Agency, ‘Reform’ is a Four-Letter Word

  1. More excellent reporting from JJ Crime Report. Really great stuff guys. A rose, or a Prop 47, by any other name would smell as sweet. When you control the language you control the conversation. That said, some of these brand-tweaks seem poorly thought out- almost as if they were the product of some obese crank from Heritage with a cushy new government job.

    “system-involved” to “yoots in the system,” seems mealy-mouthed even for Trumpers. James Alan Fox’s “Super predator” is obviously played out as a dog whistle but one might have expected more from the “MS-13 gonna rape yer baby!” crowd. I bet everything they workshopped got rejected as just “way too on- the-nose-super-racist.”

    But one could certainly see how “reform” makes the Klu Klux Keebler’s team nervous. (read in voice of J. Beauregard) “Ah mean this wun heeuh… ‘refawm,’… that just don’t sound right tuh me a tall… Ah mean ‘refawmin’ is what we good Christian folks should be doin to them uppity neg… to the criminals ah say suh.

    “Reform” in the mind of the authoritarian/Manichean can only be used to describe what should happen to something that is “bad” like taxes on the rich or their corporations.
    Some just can’t stomach the idea of using “reform” with respect to the sacred cows of right wing dogma like race-based policing and for profit lockups (read-“We found a FLSA loophole you could drive a truck through!”

    I’d blame Frank Luntz but this is really a problem specific to a culture that’s made up of equal parts, fear, loathing, marketing and anti-intellectualism.

  2. A lot of people try to police the language of juvenile justice–on the left and the right. I don’t have a problem with anyone issuing language “guidelines,” but what consequences will I face when I violate the guidelines? Will I even know when I’m being punished?

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