OP-ED: Time to Take Closer Look at Race in Juvenile Justice System

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Carmen Daugherty

Carmen DaughertyThe latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that the rate of youth in confinement dropped 41 percent between 2001 and 2011. Cause to celebrate? Yes and no.

Despite the remarkable decrease in the use of confinement for youth, The National Council on Crime & Delinquency (NCCD) reports that the proportion of youth of color receiving court dispositions grew substantially between 2002 and 2012. NCCD completed a statistical analysis of county-level data from five counties across the country that have worked on system reform. NCCD found that youth of color represented 66.8 percent of sentenced youth in 2002. This percentage rose to an alarming 80.4 percent in 2012.

Youth in the adult system: Gross disparities

We know youth of color are over-represented at all stages in the juvenile justice system. African-American youth overwhelmingly receive harsher treatment than white youth in the system at most stages of case processing. African-American youth make up an astounding 30 percent of those arrested while they only represent 17 percent of the overall youth population.

At the other extreme end of the system, African-American youth are 62 percent of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. States such as Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C., have recently reported on these disparate practices.

The number of delinquency cases judicially waived to the adult criminal justice system peaked in 1994 at 13,300 cases, more than double the number of cases waived in 1985. In 2011, juvenile courts waived an estimated 5,300 delinquency cases, about 60 percent fewer cases than in 1994, yet the rate at which petitioned cases were waived to criminal court was 40 percent greater for black youth than for white youth.

Compared to white youth, Latino youth are 4 percent more likely to be petitioned, 16 percent more likely to be adjudicated delinquent, 28 percent more likely to be detained, and 41 percent more likely to receive an out-of-home placement (i.e., incarceration in a state correctional facility). The most severe disparities occur for Latino youth tried in the adult system. Latino children are 43 percent more likely than white youth to be waived into the adult system and 40 percent more likely to be admitted to adult prison.

Native American youth are most likely to receive the two most severe punishments in juvenile justice systems: out-of-home placement and waiver to the adult system. Compared to white youth, Native American youth are 1.5 times more likely to receive out-of-home placement and are 1.5 times more likely to be waived to the adult criminal system. Nationwide, the average rate of new commitments to adult state prison for Native American youth is 1.84 times that of white youth.

The data exists; now what can we do about it?

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was established in 1974 to provide federal standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system. Twenty years later, the JJDPA included a Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) provision requiring states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system. In the most recent JJDPA reauthorization more than 10 years ago, the term “confinement” was changed to “contact” to emphasize the racial and ethnic disparities faced by youth of color at all points in the juvenile justice system.

The JJDPA’s DMC provision has ensured funding to every state to reduce these stark racial and ethnic disparities. There are promising efforts in a number of states. Take a look at the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) efforts, W. Haywood Burns Institute and the Models for Change (MfC) initiative.

The Campaign for Youth Justice, along with many other national and state partner organizations, recognizes the urgency in addressing the blatant disparities for youth in both the juvenile justice system and adult criminal justice system. We have been staunch advocates for reform efforts at both the federal and state level and hope you will continue to join us in supporting and advocating for changes that will improve the lives of youth of color.

Trying youth as adults has negative consequences for all youth, but communities of color are particularly harmed by these policies and everyone, including policymakers, should be concerned that our system of justice is applied inequitably.

Carmen Daugherty is the policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice.

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