Are Youth of Color Benefiting From Juvenile Justice Reform?

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Within the scope of juvenile justice literature, studies highlight the need for both immediate and long-term reform measures. This is clearly pertinent given the existence of racial disparity in terms of treatment and confinement among youth in the United States. In fact, federal and state-level funding has been provided to address this dilemma during the past 10 to 15 years.

There are a variety of programs and policies that facilitate juvenile justice reform efforts. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has instituted a number of effective measures designed to reduce the use of detention among youth. One example is the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which has demonstrated promising results in a number of states.

Congress is currently reviewing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, which passed the House in May and was sent to the Senate. Certain components of this act will address either directly or indirectly the need for and evaluation of juvenile justice reform measures.

North Carolina finally increased the age at which a juvenile may be certified as an adult. Despite this needed change, implementation of this law may not take effect until 2019. After reviewing the 2016 Juvenile Justice Report as provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I noticed the following reform findings:

Between 2010-16, there was a 56 percent decrease in youth sent to detention centers and 48 percent reduction of youth sent to development centers. A 28 percent reduction in school-based complaints and a 37 percent reduction in gang affiliation among youth were also identified.  

The report said that compared to their counterparts, youth of color are more than 2.5 times more likely to have complaints filed against them and 1.5 times more likely to experience secure detention.

To this end, racial disparity levels (or the ratio of blacks to whites in terms of treatment in the juvenile justice system) have either remained the same or in some cases actually increased. This begs the question: Are juvenile justice reform measures exclusively beneficial for youth who are not considered “youth of color”? If so, this is equivalent to the “whites only” segregation-based ideology of the Jim Crow era.

Ultimately, let’s not assume that progress in relation to juvenile justice reform efforts is applied in an equitable manner. Just as there is a racially disproportionate number of youth confined in the juvenile justice system, there is also a similar relationship with regard to those who avoid such treatment. From this standpoint, the abstract and practical concepts of juvenile justice reform must be re-examined.   

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine’s University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”

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