Looking backwards to address the future at the expense of youth and communities
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On July 3, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne Impeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Tide, Tigers and Trump: President hopes for home-field advantage in Alabama MORE rescinded 24 guidance documents, which included seven related to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). These documents provided guidance to the states on key youth justice issues, including how to monitor youth justice facilities to ensure they are treating youth safely and humanely and how to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. It is into this vacuum that OJJDP has stepped with grant solicitations that are beginning to reveal its new and alarming priorities.

OJJDP’s FY 2018 mentoring grant initiative stripped references to working with LGBTQ youth even though these youth are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates and experience high rates of sexual victimization in custody. OJJDP’s recent FY 2018 gang suppression grant solicitation will move the country backwards to the failed policies of “tough on crime” suppression. The move also prioritizes cooperation with federal immigration authorities – a tactic that will harm young people and families and could worsen the overall crime rate.

OJJDP’s FY 2018 Gang Suppression Planning Grants Program requires that applicants elevate suppression of youth gang violence as one of their priority issues. The solicitation also prioritizes cooperation with federal immigration authorities through practices such as allowing federal immigration officers to gain access to youth in detention facilities and following federal requests to facilitate youth transfers to immigration custody.

While “tough on crime” has been a good soundbite for many politicians, the truth is that focusing on suppression heavy policies, particularly with youth, can harm communities rather than make them safer. A comprehensive comparison study between responses to increases in gang affiliation in Chicago and Los Angeles, both of which relied heavily on suppression tactics, and New York City, which focused on innovative social work and positive youth development approaches, demonstrated that pro-social engagement was far more effective than suppression in diminishing gang involvement. Research on gangs has shown that gang crackdowns can strengthen the cohesiveness of gangs and make gang-related violence worse. Suppression tactics actually reinforce gang cohesion, by elevating the gang’s importance and reinforcing an “us versus them” mentality.” Since law enforcement officials already disparately target black and brown youth, suppression policies are also likely to further increase the racial and ethnic disparities of youth in the justice system.

Prioritizing local justice system cooperation with federal immigration authorities can cause further harm to public safety by eroding the trust of immigrant youth in – and creating a culture of fear around – justice system officials and institutions. Broken trust and fear can prevent these youth and their families from cooperating with police in solving crimes and from reporting crimes. All of which undermines community safety.

Researchers have found that gang membership is strongly correlated with youth who are experiencing problems in multiple areas, including drugs, learning disabilities, low school commitment and family instability. Education and community-based youth programs have demonstrated effectiveness in redirecting young people away from gangs, by preventing gang attachment in the first place, and by assisting teens in completing high school, which is clearly correlated with reduced crime and healthier communities. Not only are community programs proven to reduce gang activity, but they are more cost effective than suppression policies which lead to more expensive prosecutions and incarceration.

OJJDP should focus its funding resources on our most vulnerable youth and prioritize proven, community-based strategies, rather than returning us to failed “tough on crime” policies of the past at the expense of our nation’s children.

Melissa Coretz Goemann is National Juvenile Justice Network’s (NJJN) Senior Policy Counsel.