Studies Show Dramatic Racial Disparities in Front End of Juvenile Justice System

Posted April 20, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young black youth

Two peer-reviewed stud­ies doc­u­ment an alarm­ing­ly unequal juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Black youth. The stud­ies point to sys­temic respons­es that result in harsh­er treat­ment for youth of col­or — espe­cial­ly Black youth — than non-His­pan­ic white youth at the front end of juve­nile jus­tice, start­ing with police encoun­ters before young peo­ple even reach high school. Glar­ing dis­par­i­ties by race and eth­nic­i­ty per­sist, accord­ing to the stud­ies, and dif­fer­ences in behav­ior can­not account for the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of youth of col­or in the jus­tice sys­tem.

All young peo­ple should be able to mature into adult­hood with­out being thrown off track by the neg­a­tive effects of jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment,” says Jaqui­ta Mon­roe, a senior asso­ciate with the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. The more that research tells us about the sys­temic bias that’s dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm­ing Black, Lati­no and oth­er youth of col­or, the more urgent it becomes to address pre­dictable ado­les­cent mis­be­hav­ior out­side of the legal system.”

Mon­roe leads the Foundation’s work with juris­dic­tions to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand their use of diver­sion, which means hold­ing youth account­able for their behav­ior with­out resort­ing to legal sanc­tions, court over­sight or the threat of con­fine­ment. The alter­na­tive — arrest­ing young peo­ple and for­mal­ly pro­cess­ing their cas­es in juve­nile court — increas­es their like­li­hood of sub­se­quent arrests, school strug­gles and employ­ment chal­lenges.

Study 1: Police Encoun­ters By Eighth Grade Increase the Like­li­hood of Future Arrests for Black Youth

Researchers found that a far high­er share of Black stu­dents than white stu­dents were stopped and ques­tioned by police by the time they were in eighth grade, even though delin­quent behav­ior was rough­ly equal between the two groups. Expe­ri­enc­ing a police encounter by eighth grade dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased the like­li­hood of a future arrest for Black youth, but not for white youth. Indeed, Black stu­dents who report­ed they had expe­ri­enced a police encounter by eighth grade were 11 times more like­ly to be arrest­ed at age 20 than their white peers. The study reveals the com­pound nature of the dis­ad­van­tages to Black youth: they are more like­ly to have ear­ly con­tact with police than white youth, and ear­ly con­tact affects them more neg­a­tive­ly than it affects white youth.

Police encoun­ters rep­re­sent the first step in a com­plex process that exac­er­bates racial inequities,” wrote the authors of the study. The study tracked 261 Black or white non-His­pan­ic stu­dents in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, begin­ning when they were in eighth grade.

Study 2: Black and Lati­no Youth are More Like­ly Than White Youth to Face Legal Con­se­quences After an Arrest

Race influ­ences whether youth are processed for­mal­ly through the juve­nile courts or alter­na­tive­ly, processed infor­mal­ly out­side of the court after an ini­tial arrest, accord­ing to a study of over 1,200 young peo­ple in three parts of the coun­try. The odds of being for­mal­ly processed — and, there­fore, hav­ing greater con­tact with the legal sys­tem — were 67% high­er for Black and Lati­no youth rel­a­tive to white youth, after account­ing for both legal and oth­er fac­tors. (The odds of being for­mal­ly arrest­ed did not dif­fer between Black and Lati­no youth.) These dis­par­i­ties are trou­bling, the authors not­ed, because youth whose cas­es were for­mal­ly processed proved more like­ly to be arrest­ed again, and less like­ly to suc­ceed in school and employ­ment lat­er in life. Once youth are arrest­ed, law enforce­ment offi­cials such as police and pro­ba­tion offi­cers often have dis­cre­tion over whether young peo­ple are for­mal­ly charged, for exam­ple, or let off with an infor­mal warn­ing. These sub­jec­tive deci­sions rely on a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing per­cep­tions of a youth’s risk to pub­lic safe­ty and of recidi­vism — two vari­ables the authors say are often con­flat­ed with a young person’s race.

The stud­ies dri­ve home the con­tin­ued struc­tur­al bias­es that dis­ad­van­tage Black youth and oth­er youth of col­or in our nation’s legal sys­tem, and the need to devel­op strate­gies that undo those struc­tures. Mon­roe points to diver­sion as one way of pro­mot­ing racial equi­ty. Deci­sion mak­ers should offer youth of col­or oppor­tu­ni­ties for diver­sion at lev­els that con­scious­ly counter the sig­nif­i­cant dis­par­i­ties that begin at arrest and per­sist through­out the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem,” she says.

Read more about sup­port­ing youth in the juve­nile jus­tice system

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