Federal Juvenile Justice Agency Makes ‘Punitive’ Language Shift- Report

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Photo by Juvenile Office of Public Affairs, US Marshalls Service via Flickr

The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has altered messaging on its website in ways that indicate a shift toward a more punitive approach to juvenile justice under the Trump administration, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project (WIP).

Changes have been made to the terminology used to describe juveniles that come into contact with the justice system and the types of programs and services OJJDP supports and provides, noted Jon Campbell, the senior investigator at the Web Integrity Project.

See also: In Feds’ Juvenile Justice Agency, ‘Reform’ is a Four-Letter Word.

Information related to girls in the juvenile justice system and the use of solitary confinement among youthful offenders were among the materials removed from its website without notice, he said.

The changes come as the office, part of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), has taken a distinct turn toward more punitive policies under the new administration, the report found.

“The office has toughened its rhetoric as its current director has announced that she intends to “rebalance” its approach to direct more focus on victim’s rights and community safety, and away from therapeutic interventions for youth.”

Significantly, the drift in policy at OJJDP has been reflected in language shifts on the website.

On the site’s “About” page, for example, the term “justice-involved youth,” widely used to describe young people in the criminal justice system, has been replaced with the term “offenders,” which advocates regard as stigmatizing.

Similarly, the office’s “Vision Statement” on the “Vision and Mission” page used to declare that it “envisions a nation where our children are healthy, educated, and free from crime and violence.”

The newest version has excised the phrase “healthy and educated.”

More, removals of pages about still-active programs and policy guidance, previously linked from the website’s “OJJDP In Focus” and “Programs and Initiatives” pages, also reflect the apparent shift in priorities at OJJDP, the report contended.

Among those removed was the “Eliminating Solitary Confinement for Youth” page, which stated OJJDP’s commitment “to ending the use of solitary confinement for youth” and included training materials for understanding the unhealthy impact of isolation and best practices for ending its use.

Two of the removed pages — “Girls and the Juvenile Justice System” and “Engaging Families and Youth in the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance” — contained policy guidance that have not been rescinded and are apparently still in effect.

Notably, the DOJ’s rescinding of other policy documents in recent months has been made through a formal process and was announced in press releases.

However, there has been no such formal process with regard to these two policy documents, which can lead to confusion about the status of the guidance, said Campbell.

See also: OJJDP Cuts Oversight of Minorities in Justice System

Another notable removal was the “Girls at Risk” page, which detailed the still-active National Girls Initiative (NGI), a program funded by OJJDP and run for years by National Crittenton, a nonprofit based in Portland, OR.

That program, aimed at helping local agencies better serve at-risk youth, takes a decidedly non-punitive approach to girls in the juvenile system, according to its director, Jeannette Pai-Espinosa.

The broad changes in policy approach at OJJDP have been stark enough that at least one grantee, the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Justice Fairness and Equity, has decided to stop working with the office, the Web Integrity Project reports.

James Bell, the organization’s director, told the WIP that the DOJ as a whole, and OJJDP in particular, has seemed uninterested in their priorities, which are the reduction of racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

After conversations with the office early in the Trump administration, Bell said the organization had decided not to seek funds from OJJDP in the future.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

This summary was prepared by TCR senior staff reporter Megan Hadley.

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