Racism of the Juvenile Justice System Revealed
New America Media, News Report, Nell Bernstein Posted: Jan 14, 2007
Editor's Note: A new report on the nation's juvenile justice system reveals chronic racial disparities. By Nell Bernstein, with additional reporting by Perry Jones. Nell Bernstein is an editor at New America Media and author of "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated" (New Press, 2005). "And Justice for All" can be viewed at http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/.
Anyone who has set foot inside a juvenile detention facility in America has seen it first hand: a sea of black and brown faces, dressed in orange or blue jumpsuits, with only a scattering of whites in between. Youth of color make up 35% of the American population but 62% of youth in juvenile detention. African -American youth, who comprise just 16% of the general population, make up 38% percent those doing time in local and state correctional facilities.
But a new report released today by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) challenges the assumption that black and brown children are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system simply because they commit more crime.
"And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Youth of Color in the Justice System," describes in painstaking detail why, in far greater proportion than whites, youths of color enter the criminal justice system. NCCD researchers found differential treatment at every step of the criminal justice process. For instance, youths of color are more likely to be picked up and detained by police.
Among the finding from the NCCD report:
• African-American youths are 4.5 times more likely, and Latinos 2.3 times more likely, than white youths to be detained for identical offenses.
• About half of white teenagers arrested on a drug charge go home without being formally charged and drawn into the system. Only a quarter of black teens arrested on drug charges catch a similar break.
• When charges are filed, white youths are more likely to be placed on probation while black youth are more likely to get locked up.
Unequal treatment didn't stop upon entry into the juvenile justice system. NCCD researchers found that African-American youths are more likely than whites to be charged, tried, and incarcerated as adults. African Americans comprise 58 percent of youths charged and convicted as adults and sent to adult prisons.
The overall decline in crime rates over the past decade has not relieved the public's worries about violent crime, and politicians know it, observed NCCD Executive Director Dr. Barry Krisberg. "The policy decision to 'get tougher on crime' makes it worse for youth of color, despite the reality that white youth commit the majority of serious crimes," Krisberg says. "In the hysteria over youth gangs, children of color are much more likely to be swept up into the system. As black and brown youth on the streets say, 'Justice means 'just us.'"
Despite a decade of advocacy and reform efforts aimed at creating a more racially equitable juvenile justice system, Krisberg notes that racial disparities have persisted and even worsened. Krisberg and his colleagues began documenting racial disparities in juvenile justice in the mid-1980s. Amendments have been made to the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that required states to study the problem and make "good faith" efforts to remedy it. The U.S. Department of Justice funded a major effort to reduce racial disparity, private philanthropy got on board, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched a major initiative aimed at reducing the number of children of color in detention facilities. Regardless, Krisberg says, this latest research reveals that despite these efforts to "control this entrenched, discriminatory tendency, the problem has only gotten worse."
DeMario Chappell, now 22, knows how hard it is to build a life if you enter the system as a youngster. He was 14 years old when he was arrested for attempted robbery of a white teenager who was dealing drugs at Chappell's school, and sent to the California Youth Authority, where he spent the next three and a half years.
Chappelle -- who had never been incarcerated before -- was greeted upon arrival by two "trustees": inmates who'd been granted special privileges and chores in return for good behavior. Like him, they were black.
Immediately, the two offered the new arrival a lesson in racial politics: "The blacks associate with blacks," and "the southern Mexicans associate with the southern Mexicans, Chappelle says he was told. "It was all about racial bias -- 'You can't eat with these people, you can't gamble with those.'"
Once Chappelle entered the general population, he said, "I was astonished to see there were so many black people locked up -- especially black youths." And he noticed an entrenched indifference to rehabilitating those youths of color. "Once you get in, there's no arm reaching out to pull you back out," Chappelle says, "no one encouraging or pushing you in the right direction. Without that, you're more likely to fall down the same path." He's unsurprised by the NCCD finding that African-Americans make up an even higher proportion of those in adult prisons than they do in juvenile facilities.
Most of his fellow inmates came from poor neighborhoods and "they were trying to come up economically and going about it the wrong way," Chappelle says. His first thoughts, he says, were, "Why aren't they educating us as to how to go out and get a job, how to dress and conduct ourselves in an interview, shake a hand firmly -- and how to explain our offense when asked if we had been incarcerated? We're not even prepared to answer that question. Basically, all we were being prepared for was how to become a better criminal."
Once he was released, on the cusp of adulthood, Chappell found "no outreach, no information given to me upon parole, steering me and guiding me to move in a correct direction, showing me how to not become a recidivist -- how to steer clear of negative peer influences, use resources like the employment office, enroll in school."
Chappell would like to see public funds used to build something other than prisons for young people of color-"rec centers, basketball leagues, whatever it takes to grab the youths' attention and keep them off the street. Grab 'em while they're young, allow them to excel, and encourage them to know they can be part of something positive."
Krisberg agrees. He believes that community-based prevention programs and alternatives to incarceration are key to reducing the disparities the report documents.
As Krisberg points out, "racial disparity in the justice system undermines the very notion of fairness in our society, costs lives and the health of communities, and makes none of us safer. It is past time for major reform of a justice system that is separate and unequal for young people of color. We must face this fundamental social injustice with a true ambition to solve it."
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