The Latest “Language Guidance” from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell, 1984

The mission of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) is under an Orwellian influence that threatens programs designed to improve our juvenile justice system. Founded in 1974 as a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, “OJJDP collaborates with professionals from diverse disciplines to improve juvenile justice policies and practices. OJJDP… accomplishes its mission by supporting states, local communities, and tribal jurisdictions in their efforts to develop and implement effective programs for juveniles.”

This year, OJJDP issued “Language Guidance” to those applying for funds to support local programs. Colleagues have suggested that the Guidance comes from new Justice Department initiatives to realign priorities; others saw a more benevolent perspective that perhaps the Guidance came from long-time staffers who want to assist applicants to be successful. Whatever the motivation, the message is deeply troubling.

Applicants were given a chart of “Language to Avoid.” The chart includes a second column of “Language Options to Use Instead.” Out are terms such as “underserved youth;” the language to use instead is ”all youth,“ which of course does not mean the same thing. Other nixed terms are “overrepresentation of minorities (in the juvenile justice system)” and the allowable term is “disproportionate minority contact.” Again, those are not interchangeable phrases: the first suggests there are too many minorities in the system; the substitute suggests that the system comes into contact with a disproportionate number of minorities. The switch is subtle but alarming, especially in a document for grantees who want to improve their local juvenile justice systems. Bait and switch is not an effective research or policy approach.

Build on past success? Forget it! Language to avoid includes “referring to the Obama White House or AG Holder initiatives.”

For years as a Law Professor, I conducted public health law research, a promising approach to community-based reform. I therefore find the guidance to avoid the terms “public health issue,” or “public health concern” especially troubling. The language options to use instead “public issue” or “public concern” are not synonyms at all since they eliminate the health component of the approach and negate an entire field of inquiry despite the OJJDP mission to collaborate with “professionals from diverse disciplines.”

This is more than semantics. This is a dangerous government effort to stifle innovative reform efforts in contradiction with the mission of OJJDP. We cannot effectively reform our juvenile justice system by removing whole areas of inquiry and policy. Such Orwellian doublespeak to control systems serving children has no place in our federal government.