We Need an Intersectional Approach to Juvenile Justice Reform

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Marie WilliamsDMC (disproportionate minority contact) is no longer simply about the over-representation of black and brown youth in the juvenile justice system. In recent years, it has come to mean something far broader and deeper to those in the reform trenches.

As part of their DMC reduction efforts, practitioners and reformers are now paying much closer attention to the special needs of other groups who are minorities in the general youth population — like LGBT youth, young people with behavioral and other health needs and homeless youth — but disproportionately represented in juvenile justice systems nationwide. The field has begun to recognize but has yet to fully address intersections among and between all these issues, including racial and ethnic disparities.

For more information about racial-ethnic fairness topics, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness

One reason states and localities have been slow to act is that while they are now coalescing around the notion that children who come into contact with the juvenile justice system must be looked at through a “whole child” lens, the federal approach remains largely siloed.

Last congressional session, Congress failed yet again to approve the long-overdue renewal of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The bill would have begun to codify some of what the field has learned over the last decade about complex juvenile justice issues, including disproportionate minority contact.

The reauthorized JJDPA would have given clearer direction to states and localities to plan and implement data-driven approaches to ensure fairness and reduce racial and ethnic disparities. It also required states, for the first time, to set out and publicly report on progress toward measurable objectives for disparity reduction.

While these changes are much-needed and laudable, they represent the barest of minimums for what state systems can and should do to meaningfully address DMC. They also evince a narrow view of the nature and scope of the disparities that exist in the 21st-century juvenile justice system, and a scant understanding of how those disparities intersect with (but are not limited to) race and ethnicity.

The DMC core requirement of the JJDPA, as presently conceptualized, seeks to measure disparities in terms of “contact” or “decision points” within the system. In theory, if a state finds and implements mechanisms to address bias — whether implicit or explicit — at those points, disparities should be reduced.

This is true, but incomplete. That approach to DMC reduction fails to recognize what reformers on the ground have known for some time — disparities in the juvenile justice system are only a function of more far-reaching societal disparities, and can only be addressed in juvenile justice if also addressed in other systems, and the community at large.

For example, societal bias against LGBT youth is only mirrored in the juvenile justice system, it does not originate there. So addressing it in terms of juvenile justice contact points does little to truly fix the problem. Likewise, disproportionate use of exclusionary school discipline policies against youth with behavioral health issues is not adequately addressed in the juvenile justice system, but should be tackled before they are referred there.

[Related: Former Attorney General Holder Urges Action on Racial Issues Under Trump]

A new guide from Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Questioning,and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide,” illustrates the conundrum. It details the startling statistic that more than half the girls in California’s juvenile facilities are either LGBT or gender nonconforming. Under current federal DMC reduction requirements, there is no obligation on the part of states participating in the JJDPA to address this issue.

But when one considers that a majority of those girls are also black, the need for intersectional approaches becomes apparent. Race, this data seems to suggest, is only part of the picture; and strategies that address DMC with that lens alone runs the risk of being completely ineffective.

In fact, many states and localities don’t collect data that would enable them to identify, let alone address, the needs of this disproportionately represented intersectional-identity population.

According to the IMPACT Justice report:

“[a] large body of research has been developed on racial and ethnic disparities (RED). There are more research papers, blogs, policy briefs, infographics and other pieces of information on RED (racial and ethnic disparities) because more of that data exists. The vast majority of police departments,probation departments, juvenile courts, public defenders, and district attorneys keep track of the race or ethnicity of the youth they serve. In contrast, most don’t keep track of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIE) within their case management systems.”

Similarly, the True Colors Fund estimates that four in 10 youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBT, though they represent only approximately seven percent of the general youth population. Young people experiencing homelessness, studies show, are more likely to commit survival crimes: petty theft, trespassing, loitering and even sex work in order to get by. Consequently, many become juvenile justice system-involved. These young people are also predominantly youth of color.

Responses to their acts, rather than to the root causes, do little to address the underlying problem, or the youths’ needs. Likewise, responding with strategies solely or primarily with reference to their race is doomed to failure.

One framework for developing an “intersectional strategy” is the 100-day challenge, which seeks to use the urgency of time to bring together stakeholders to develop plans of action to address youth homelessness. This strategy, which was used effectively to address veteran homelessness, is now being used by jurisdictions like Philadelphia to address youth homelessness.

Since many youth who “age out” or discharge from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are at high risk for becoming homeless, and make up a significant percentage of the homeless youth and young adult population, the initiative includes subgroups charged with developing recommendations and action plans for improved transition and reentry planning as well as age-appropriate service delivery.

To ensure that the recommendations are well-informed, experts from the schools, shelters, juvenile justice and child welfare systems have been engaged in this process, with the understanding that young people who experience homelessness often come into contact with — or are failed by — multiple systems. And it will take a similar, multisystem, intersectional approach to meet their needs.

While the 100-Day Challenge is not framed as “addressing DMC” or even as a juvenile justice initiative per se, it will undoubtedly benefit the field by broadening our understanding about the nature and pathways of young people who come into the system, and how to keep them out.

System stakeholders, advocates and policymakers across the country and at the national level should take note of the lessons learned from the Philadelphia 100-Day Challenge and similar initiatives. By breaking down barriers to collaboration and employing an intersectional approach that engages all child-serving systems and looks at the “whole child,” we can implement reform that addresses broader social issues well beyond the juvenile justice system, and that works to the benefit of youth, families and communities as a whole.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

More related articles:

We Must End Severe Racial Inequity of Charges Against N.J. Children

Officer Who Shot Ramarley Graham Committed ‘Egregious Violations,’ Expert Agrees in Trial

Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

3 thoughts on “We Need an Intersectional Approach to Juvenile Justice Reform

  1. Good article, Thank you…
    “Responses to their acts, rather than to the root causes, do little to address the underlying problem, or the youths’ needs. Likewise, responding with strategies solely or primarily with reference to their race is doomed to failure.”
    My work is implementing behavioral and academic interventions to increase engagement and decrease discipline in schools. In my work we look at the traditional methods of discipline and how it does not address the “Why”. Most responses and reactive systems in place lead to further disconnect between people, without looking at orientation, race, religion or any part of who that person is. Ironically, looking at any intervention, support, system and how it is presented is the exact same. When an intervention, process or new system in presented, it is only received based on that individuals personal experiences/bias, etc. This is why we focus solely on Communication Cycles, Human Behavior, Self Awareness, Self Care then work toward a better understanding of Restorative, Mindful and Trauma Informed, for all of us, never for “them”.