OJJDP’s Pass on Racial Disparities Met with Sounds of Silence

Since 2013, the Justice Department has not enforced a requirement that states study, and attempt to address, racial disparities in their juvenile justice systems. The department has been issuing states a “pass” on the disproportionate minority contact (DMC) requirement of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the central piece of federal policy on juvenile justice.

This is a fact, conceded by many current and former officials at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and made public last week in a report from the Office of the Inspector General (IG). Click here to read our rundown of the findings of that report, and here to read the report itself.

One would think that, given the fact that disproportionate minority contact is one of the hottest-button issues in juvenile justice, this would cause quite an outcry amongst advocates. And given the very recent history of compliance trouble at OJJDP, one would think this would prompt some discernible frustration on Capitol Hill.

But thus far, the IG’s report is being met with a collective shrug by all parties.

Youth Services Insider has repeatedly asked for comment from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who led a 2015 inquiry into OJJDP compliance problems exposed by a whistleblower. No comment from Grassley at all about this report.

YSI also reached out to OJJDP to find out whether its inaction on racial disparities would continue into fiscal 2017. The IG report noted that the whole “pass” thing came about because a formal guidance on DMC compliance had yet to be approved.

Has that happened yet, we wondered? Thus far, no answer from OJJDP. So at this point, it’s unclear if the proper guidance is in place to end the “pass.”

On the advocacy side, we could not find one organization that had publicly commented on the IG report. National juvenile justice organizations have stressed the importance of reauthorizing JJDPA for more than a decade now, emphasizing its importance to keeping states honest. But nothing when it comes out that OJJDP wasn’t keeping them honest?

We reached out to the Burns Institute (BI), the organization with the longest history working on DMC issues in the country. BI has received more than $2 million from OJJDP to provide assistance to states on addressing DMC.

Burns Executive Director Tshaka Barrows, a longtime champion for racial equity in juvenile justice, did get back to us.

Barrows, in an email, said BI was “not aware of any blanket ‘pass’ for compliance on the ‘DMC’ requirement.” He also lauded the “great efforts that former OJJDP Administrator Bob Listenbee undertook to make the reduction of racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system a priority.”

It was not the response YSI expected from an organization that has spent decades fighting disparity and just found out that OJJDP has been ignoring the basic state compliance rules on the subject.

But Barrows’ further comments on the matter explain why the DMC Pass rates a “meh” on the reaction scale. It’s because advocates view the DMC requirement in JJPDA as not worthy of defense.

Said Barrows:

“Currently, whether or not States are in technical compliance with the vague requirement to ‘address’ the disproportionate number of youth of color in the justice system does not reveal much.”

It is not the first time we have heard that sentiment. Years ago, former BI Executive Director James Bell told YSI that the standard was too easy to comply with.

“It says you must address DMC,” Bell said. “You could drive 18 tankers through that.”

More specifically, the requirement is that states provide evidence that they are following a five-phase DMC reduction model: identification, assessment, intervention, evaluation and monitoring. The criticism of the requirement, as expressed to YSI over the years, has been that states have to do little more than hold meetings and gather data. They never have to actually move closer to addressing racial disparity to be in compliance.

The Obama administration waited until its final year in office to promulgate some new rules on JJDPA compliance that would have made DMC and the other three core requirements tougher to meet. Burns, and other juvenile justice advocacy groups, provided input on how best to do that.

Days before the inauguration, Obama Justice signed off on a final slate of new JJDPA rules. Left off the list: any updates to the DMC requirement. It deferred to the Trump administration to develop any new teeth for the DMC requirement. That has yet to happen.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1181 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.