My inbox and web feeds are flooded with reports and news stories about great progress in making juvenile justice systems more therapeutic and less punitive.
However, buried in these headlines is a startling fact: Racial disparities in juvenile incarceration are increasing. In other words, as many states promote alternatives to incarceration, juvenile facilities are now reserved primarily for black and brown kids.
Nate Balis of the Annie E. Casey foundation, recognizing these racial and ethnic disparities, has called for an “intentional and unwavering focus” on these issues. How should we direct this focus?
First, the term disproportionate minority contact (DMC) assumes that by simply ensuring that all youth are treated in the same way, we will achieve racial equality. As criminologist Geoff Ward argues, this idealizes a nonracial system, not a racially and ethnically inclusive one.
But this focus, as opposed to recognizing how and why we have continued to see black and brown children as the most “dangerous” youth, perpetuates our practice of ignoring the powerful role of structural racism in creating these disparities.
Current approaches to thinking about race in the juvenile justice system often shy away from addressing racism. We need to start acting more seriously to end systemic and structural forms of racism, not simply talking about race.
Secondly, the strategy of many states to reduce the numbers of youth in care has relied upon risk-based instruments. Arguably, those instruments have supported the processes of institutional racism.
While many advocates of risk assessment claim these tools have helped us shift away from a system of subjective and racially biased judgment by judges and probation officers and toward more “objective” and neutral actuarial tools, these tools are not value-neutral.
The “riskiness” in risk assessment — truancy from school, prior arrest history and family conditions — is shaped by institutional and structural racism. The school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling and structural disadvantage are all processes that affect truancy, arrest and family histories.
As the legal scholar Bernard Harcourt has argued, risk has become a proxy for race. Yet we rarely look at the adults who design these tools. Instead, when seeking to improve the tools, we too often focus on the children assessed by them and ask what is wrong with them.
Instead, we should ask why the adults who create these tools continue to see prior arrest histories among children as evidence of risk instead of blaming the policing practices that result in such high arrest rates among children of color.
Thirdly, we must recognize that the strategy of many state juvenile justice systems — to simply monitor the data about racial disproportionality — does not in and of itself lead to substantive and meaningful change. Data is powerful in demonstrating racialized practices of social control, but data alone cannot begin to undo white supremacy.
What numbers reveal should be obvious to most but is often unnamed: the practices of schools, police officers and prosecutors who systematically identify youth of color as “bad” and in need of institutionalization.
We must stop kicking black and brown children out of school and arresting them. This is a national crisis but it is not treated as such. We spend more time thinking about how we are going to treat or change these young people once they’ve been kicked out of school and arrested rather than looking at pathological social conditions and policies, or at the disease of white supremacy. It is arguable that this is a disease that is much more challenging to our national well-being than youth crime.
Fourth, we must begin to look seriously at the therapeutic interventions used in juvenile facilities, where the most "successful" youth are the most docile and deferential ones in the eyes of staff and administrators. These interventions — even as they have evolved with recent reforms — are inextricably linked to the project of racialized social control in this country. They developed over the course of the 20th century, when juvenile facilities moved from being reformatories for white children from Italy, Ireland and Poland to institutions for children of color.
The practices of behavioral control used in the facilities — and which arguably remain there — were devised primarily by white psychologists and behavioralists. Their goal was to create interventions aimed at ensuring that the youth in care would stay in their places in the racialized social hierarchy.
Yet we focus less on critiquing the underlying ideologies behind those systems than in correcting the youth who fall under them. If there is anything I’ve learned from years of researching juvenile facilities, it is: Young people resist rules and structures that oppress them because they know these rules are primarily aimed at keeping them in their place, rather than allowing them to grow.
It is time to start developing a juvenile justice system that departs from the individualist orientations of its European-American creators. It is time to start acknowledging and privileging the forms of collective responsibility that people of African descent teach and value, and that have been of such significance in helping our nation grow.
Fifth, strategies to integrate “cultural competency” training in juvenile justice systems assume that racism is simply an act of individual-level bigotry, not systemic and structural. It assumes that racist practices can be ended through education and training. It assumes that we can train probation officers and juvenile facility staff to better understand the lives of children in care, as opposed to challenging why they are there in the first place.
Respecting difference is important, but believing that racism operates at the interpersonal level alone is counterproductive. Many staff in these systems have attitudes that are products of their backgrounds and histories but their views are also supported and sustained within institutionally racist structures. Those structures perpetuate the idea that there are bad kids who are in need of institutionalization, and that the vast majority of those bad kids are black and brown. We should resist the urge to believe that racial disproportionality will end if frontline staff stop acting racist.
We will never get rid of structural racism by focusing on its victims: White people and those of us who have benefitted from racialized social systems that prioritize white middle-class norms must confront our own dysfunction and self-destructive behaviors. We have created a system that may be smaller but still does more harm than good.
Alexandra Cox is assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.