ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
With the battle for a new Supreme Court justice and constant drama at the White House, it can be easy to overlook the impact of the Trump administration on more narrow slices of the U.S. government, slices like the little-known Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. For decades, black and Latino children have been locked up at rates far exceeding white kids, and this office has been working for years to reduce those disparities. President Trump's appointee is making big changes. And Eli Hager writes about this for The Marshall Project. Hi, Eli.
ELI HAGER: Hey. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Explain what the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is. What does it do?
HAGER: It's a small agency within the Justice Department that's required to maintain four what are called core protections for kids in the juvenile justice system. One is that they remove kids as often as possible from adult jails. The second is that they - even if they are in adult jails, to keep them totally separate from adult inmates. The third is to not incarcerate them for what are called status offenses, which means things that are only crimes because you're a kid, like truancy and curfew and running away and things like that. And then the fourth one, which is really somewhere they've focused over the decades, is reducing racial disparities and requiring states to make efforts to reduce the racial disparity in juvenile incarceration.
SHAPIRO: Because as you say, white kids and black and Latino kids get in fights roughly the same amount, research has shown, but black and Latino kids get locked up for it a lot more.
HAGER: Yeah, not just getting in fights - getting in fights, carrying weapons, using and selling drugs. All of the most common types of offenses that juveniles commit, black and white kids commit at about the same rates. It's just that black kids get policed for it a lot more aggressively.
SHAPIRO: So this office has had this mandate since the 1980s. What changes has President Trump's appointee, Caren Harp, made?
HAGER: She's made a number of changes, and all of them focus around reducing what states have to do in terms of racial disparities - reporting less data to the federal government, doing less to try to reduce those disparities in return for the money they get from the federal government.
SHAPIRO: You interviewed Caren Harp. She's a prosecutor, a former professor at the evangelical Liberty University. How did she justify these changes that she's made?
HAGER: So she had a number of explanations. The first one is that it is true that racial disparities in the juvenile justice system have not been improving overall. In fact they've gotten a little bit worse over the last two decades. And so her argument was essentially, you know, what we're doing is - doesn't seem to be working. We can't keep throwing millions of dollars into this same process every year.
And the other thing she said is that the juvenile justice system has shifted a little bit too much to a focus on getting kids out of prison and not arresting them instead of focusing on public safety, which she said should be a major concern. The reason why youth advocates would disagree with that is public safety and racial disparities don't really have that much to do with each other since black and white kids commit crimes at about the same rates.
SHAPIRO: So what is the fear among people who work in juvenile justice?
HAGER: The fear is that the work that has been done by this agency for three decades on reducing racial disparities will now kind of evaporate and that states especially in the South who haven't done a great job of reporting data on racial disparities and working on the problem will now be able to get away with it. One official told me, you know, what she's doing is basically saying, like, hey, Mississippi, if you don't want to work on this race thing anymore, that's all right with us.
SHAPIRO: But does Caren Harp, the new head of this office, have a point that the work this agency was doing didn't seem to have an impact on juvenile incarceration rates and racial disparities?
HAGER: Well, the work that the agency has been doing has had an impact in some of the areas. A lot of states have raised the age at which kids can be held in adult jails. And overall, juvenile incarceration has plummeted over the last two years. It's just that these racial disparities have remained stubborn.
But some officials would point out that there have been several jurisdictions that the agency has worked with that really have reduced their racial disparities. They think that Caren Harp is overlooking that work because she's just looking at the overall national number that shows the racial disparities remaining the same. But in several of the specific jurisdictions that the juvenile justice office has worked with most closely, they've actually done pretty good work reducing disparities.
SHAPIRO: Eli Hager is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Thanks for joining us.
HAGER: Sure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.