In almost every state, youth of color are held in secure facilities at rates as high as four and a half times their percentage of the population. For example, in 2010, African-American youth made up 16.6 percent of the under 18 population. That same year they comprised 40.9 percent of incarcerated youth in the U.S, a disproportionality ratio of 2.46 to 1.
Just to be clear, this figure means that African-American youth are 2.46 times more likely to be incarcerated than we would expect if we used their percentage in the general population as a guide. And that’s just the national average. In 14 states in 2010, African-American youth were disproportionately represented in juvenile confinement by more than a factor of three. The issue has traditionally affected African-American youth but Latinos and other youth of color have begun to experience more juvenile justice system disproportionately in recent years.
JPI’s recent report released Feb. 27, Common Ground: Lessons learned from five states that reduced juvenile confinement by more than half, found that, despite falling youth confinement rates nationally, disproportionate incarceration remains a problem in most states. In fact, even amongst states that have lowered youth confinement by more than half, the disproportionality of incarcerated youth of color has gotten worse.
The problem isn't new or a surprise to politicians practitioners or advocates. It certainly isn’t news to confined youth of color whose cellmates are overwhelmingly various shades of brown. Disproportionality was mentioned in federal guidelines as early as 1988 in revisions to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (PDF).
So why haven't decades of well-intended efforts solved or at least lessened the problem? Most likely because the decision to confine or not confine a young person of color 1) cannot legally or ethically be based on their color, and 2) that decision is too late in the chain of decisions that led to the youth's justice system involvement.
In our American legal system there is no place for racially influenced decision-making (not to say it doesn’t exist). So the possibility of a mandate to incarcerate fewer youth of color upon adjudication is an impossible one. Even if tried, it would lead to cries of reverse discrimination. A judge must base their decision on other factors. Sadly, these other factors are ones for which youth of color are at a disadvantage. They come from communities and schools that are more likely to have a police presence, making prior citations or arrests more likely. Youth of color are more likely to be stopped for suspicion and less likely to be counseled and released than white youth. Youth of color who lack financial resources can’t afford legal representation, making pre-trial detention more likely which leads to a higher likelihood of adjudication (a guilty finding in the juvenile system) and incarceration. And it doesn’t stop there. Justice system involvement for youth increases the likelihood of adult justice involvement. Any level of involvement hurts families, communities, impacts educational attainment and burdens society.
- Executive summary of Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth
- Full report of Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth
- Full report Common Ground: Common Ground: Lessons Learned from Five States that Reduced Juvenile Confinement by More than Half
Spike Bradford is senior research associate for JPI.