Locking Up Racial Bias: States Continue to Look for Ways to Reduce Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System

By Brown, Sarah | State Legislatures, October-November 2013 | Go to article overview

Locking Up Racial Bias: States Continue to Look for Ways to Reduce Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System


Brown, Sarah, State Legislatures


Minorities have disproportionately outnumbered whites in the nation's juvenile justice system for a long time. In 2010, all minorities combined comprised about 40 percent of the nation's youth, yet they accounted for nearly 70 percent of the population in secure juvenile facilities, according to the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Nationally, custody rates for minority juveniles were 2.8 times higher than for whites, and in 18 states, the minority-to-white placement rate was more than 4 to 1. African-Americans are the most over-represented minority. In 42 states, in 2010, the placement rate for black juvenile offenders into residential correctional facilities exceeded that of all other racial and ethnic groups, according to the juvenile justice office.

Reducing this imbalance is a goal of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which requires states to try to eliminate disparities or face losing federal juvenile justice funding. Most states have made that effort, but the reasons these disparities exist are not always easily identified or even acknowledged, and solutions can be elusive. But numerous studies across the country document the problem persists.

Several states and cities are working to narrow the gap by requiring more racial impact analyses and race-neutral assessments, switching to more effective community-based programs, and training correctional and educational staff on cultural differences that may affect juvenile behavior.

Unintended Biases

Oregon lawmakers passed a bill this year requiring that all legislation be screened for language that might result in unequal targeting or treatment of minority youth. It's called a "racial impact statement" and it's a way to look, upfront, for procedures that could have unintended impacts on minorities.

Iowa and Connecticut also have laws that require racial impact statements, while Minnesota conducts comparable analyses, but without legislation.

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"Racial impact statements represent a constructive way to address disparities in the justice system," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. "These policies give legislators the opportunity to address any unintended result of a given law instead of having to amend it later."

When making detention decisions, officers' assessments of how likely a youth will offend often are subjective and have resulted in inequities. Georgia now requires juvenile justice staff and probation officers to use "race-neutral risk assessment instruments" in an effort to eliminate racial and ethnic bias and better indicate when detention is necessary. They evaluate a youth's probation status, history of appearing in court, prior record, and the seriousness of the current charge without unduly weighing social factors that increase the likelihood of being placed in detention.

For example, instead of asking if a young person lives with both his parents, a situation common to only 36 percent of African-Americans, a race-neutral assessment might ask if he lives with two adults capable of supervising him at home. Similarly, asking if a youth is involved in a "productive activity" when not in school can guide decisions about the most appropriate level of supervision.

Juvenile justice officials in Berks County, Penn., use a race-neutral assessment instrument to distinguish young offenders who pose a danger or flight risk from those who can stay safely within the community with supervision. Many youth who stay in their homes must check in at a "reporting center" on weekday evenings, where they receive help with schoolwork and career-college exploration and participate in group counseling, recreation, enrichment activities and community service projects. …

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