OP-ED: To Address Disproportionate Minority Contact Keep Status Offenders Out of Courts

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MWilliamsProfileAll children deserve to be treated fairly in the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, all too often, that is not the case for minority youth.

Under the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), states are required to address disproportionality of racial, ethnic and linguistic minority youth at every stage of the juvenile justice system, also known as disproportionate minority contact (DMC).  In 2011, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that only 34 states had implemented DMC systems improvement and delinquency prevention strategies. Those efforts, however, largely ignored a significant number of youth in the justice system: those at risk for, or charged with status offenses.

A status offense is behavior that would not be considered a crime if committed by an adult. The most common examples of status offenses are running away, skipping school, “being beyond the control of their parents” or possessing alcohol or tobacco. In many states, kids can even be locked up for status offenses if they violate a court order not to commit them again.

These behaviors are often the result of unmet child and family needs including child abuse or neglect, an unsafe school or living environment or mistreated or undiagnosed special needs.

The most recent data from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement show that more than 2,239 youth were locked up in 2011 for committing status offenses. Of these incarcerated children, 32 percent were African American, 10 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were Native American.

These numbers indicate significant disproportionate representation of youth of color among those in residential placement for status offenses. That same year, 76 percent of youth age 12-17 were white; only 16 percent were African American, 16 percent were Hispanic and fewer than 2 percent were Native American, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Although many states and communities are making strides to reduce DMC, we need to do more to address the staggering number of minority youth who charged with non-delinquent offenses. Research has shown the damaging effects that incarceration, and even court involvement, can have on young people who have committed status offenses. They can suffer long lasting psychological consequences and often learn worse behavior from their peers in the system who may be incarcerated for serious delinquent offenses.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice recently released the “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses” as part of the Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project, and will be releasing an issue brief on DMC and status offenses later this month. The SOS Project engages multiple stakeholders to guide states in implementing policies and practices that divert non-delinquent youth from juvenile courts and locked confinement, and connect them to family and community-based systems of care that can more effectively meet their needs. The “National Standards” include specific recommendations for system professionals — from law enforcement to social service providers and courts — to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including:

  • Collect and analyze data at all decision points so intentional strategies can be developed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities;
  • Use culturally competent screening and assessment tools at appropriate points and throughout a status offense case;
  • Implement practices that are culturally and linguistically competent;
  • Implement family engagement and alternative dispute resolution strategies during status offense cases;
  • Provide access to family-connected and community-based services in youths’ home communities, especially where a community may have disproportionately high involvement in the status offense system;
  • Identify the root cause of the status offending behavior before court involvement; and
  • Avoid secure detention for all youth who commit status offenses.

We must change conversation away from how the juvenile justice system ought to be involved with status offenders and toward whether the juvenile justice system ought to be involved with these young people at all. The “National Standards” provide a framework that could help discontinue the over-representation of minority youth in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

Marie Williams, JD, is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and leads the organization’s Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project.

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