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Young men sit in their cells at the Juvenile Detention Center in El Paso, Texas.

This Agency Tried to Fix the Race Gap in Juvenile Justice. Then Came Trump

A new presidential appointee has quietly changed decades-old federal policies meant to improve racial disparities in youth incarceration.

For two decades, the number of children behind bars in the U.S. has been on the decline—but the racial disparity has been dramatically worsening, with black youth several times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated.

A little-known Justice Department agency is supposed to tackle this problem: the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which has been mandated by Congress since 1988 to try to shrink the racial gap by providing grants and training to local juvenile courts and law enforcement agencies. In return, states receiving federal dollars must gather data on inequality, explore why it’s happening and pursue solutions.

But with an appointee of President Trump at the helm, the office has taken a quiet but decisive turn away from that mandate.

Under new administrator Caren Harp, who took office in January, the agency is essentially dissolving its research arm—which had been the only federal team regularly compiling information on racial patterns in juvenile arrests and incarceration.

Caren Harp.

Caren Harp.

And starting next month, the office will sharply cut back on its oversight of states’ attempts to reduce what is called “disproportionate minority contact” with the criminal justice system, largely by slashing the kinds of data that local agencies must collect. It has also rescinded multiple training manuals that juvenile justice officials around the country had been using to improve racial disparities, in what Attorney General Jeff Sessions said was a correction of unnecessary regulation.

“OJJDP is dismantling protections for kids of color. It’s that simple,” said Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth, an advocacy organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that focuses on police interactions with teens.

Harp, a former prosecutor and professor at the evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said in an interview with The Marshall Project that after so many years of so little progress on racial disparities, something had to change. “I can’t put 50 million more dollars into the exact same process,” she said.

According to Harp, states have been spending too much time and money compiling data without improving real-life outcomes.

She also said the agency’s research on racial disparities will continue under the auspices of the adult-focused National Institute of Justice, although experts have warned that studies on juveniles specifically might get sidelined as a result.

To Harp, every issue in juvenile justice, including racial disparities, should be looked at through the lens of public safety and offender accountability. Local jurisdictions have “drifted a bit to a focus on avoiding arrests at all costs,” she said in a March interview with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a news and commentary website. “It went a little too far to the side of providing services.”

Youth advocates counter that working to keep juveniles of color out of lockup has nothing to do with public safety. Black children get into fights, steal property, carry weapons and use and sell drugs at about the same rates as white kids, according to an analysis of federal data by the Sentencing Project—they just get disproportionately policed for it.

Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, first passed in 1974, the agency now run by Harp must ensure four “core protections” for children: not locking them up for age-based “status offenses” such as truancy, running away and curfew violations; removing them from adult jails, with few exceptions; always keeping them separate from adult inmates; and ensuring that states research and address racial disparities.

Since 2000, states have seen considerable success in meeting the first three objectives. Many have raised the age at which kids are sent to adult facilities, and the number of youth incarcerated for status offenses has been cut to just a few hundred nationally.

But three current officials in the Office of Justice Programs, which oversees the juvenile justice office, concede it has fallen short on the racial justice provision. The law is vague about how exactly local agencies must address disparities, and budgets relatively little money to fix such an entrenched problem. Some grants to state youth-justice systems are as small as $400,000, yet are meant to pay for a range of services including after-school and anti-gang programs, job training, drug treatment, mentoring and legal defense for juveniles.

“Congress doesn’t care about juvenile justice—that’s the underlying issue here,” said one of the officials, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing their employment.

There’s also the challenge of incorrect or incomplete data reporting. While states like Washington assemble thorough statistics on racial trends, others, especially in the South, have not.

Some insiders at the agency were heartened when Harp came in and said she’d be simplifying things.

The office is known for frequent budget delays and leadership changes and blunders, including from an Obama-era administrator who employees said knowingly accepted bad data from states but gave them funding anyway. After Chuck Grassley, now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, repeatedly wrote to the Justice Department in 2014 and 2015 accusing it of mismanaging the grant program, the agency overreacted by enforcing cumbersome procedures, some officials believed.

“We kept putting out policy guidance for states, then retracting it, then putting another out. It was chaotic,” said one official.

But for many, the rollback of racial justice efforts under the Trump administration has gone too far.

Now, the agency is giving preference to states that promise to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in fighting MS-13 and other youth gangs associated with immigrants.

And it will let them come up with their own goals for lessening racial disparities.

In the new grant application—slimmed to one page—states will no longer be expected to submit data on how often black and Latino children have charges filed against them, are convicted or are put on probation. Instead of furnishing specific, rigorous metrics on race, as in the past, they will only have to respond to general questions such as, “How much do you want to reduce [racial disparities] next year?”; “Is that reasonable? If yes, why?”; and “What safeguards will you put in place to ensure that as you work to reduce disproportionate minority contact, [you will still be] protecting the public, holding youth accountable, and equipping youth to live crime-free, productive lives?”

One official said that none of the recent changes have been discussed with longtime staff: “We’re just told the decisions, not the reasoning behind it … I think they’re just trying to tear the whole thing down before someone pays attention.”

The agency has also issued new language guidance for its employees, instructing them to refer to children in the justice system as “offenders,” to use the phrase “all youth” instead of “underserved youth” and to describe crime as a “public issue” not a “public-health issue.”

Harp, the new administrator, says that states can still collect as much data on racial disparities as they want. She also plans to start posting local agencies’ successes and failures on the office website in order to hold them accountable and share what works—a kind of “peer-to-peer training” instead of a top-down federal government approach.

As another official sees it, that’s like saying, “Hey Mississippi, if you don’t want to do anything about this race thing anymore, that’s OK with us.”