Race Bias Cited Throughout Juvenile Justice System: Big disparity reported, even for identical crimes

(04-26) 04:00 PST Washington — African American and Latino youths are treated more severely than white teenagers charged with comparable crimes at every step of the juvenile justice system, according to a comprehensive report released yesterday that was sponsored by the Justice Department and six of the nation’s leading foundations.

The report — written by Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, senior researchers with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco — found that minority youths are more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested, held in jail, sent to juvenile or adult court for trial, convicted and given longer prison terms.

In some cases, the disparities are stunning. Among young people who have not been sent to juvenile prison before, blacks are more than six times as likely as whites to be sentenced by juvenile courts to prison.

For young people charged with a violent crime who have not been in juvenile prison previously, black teenagers are nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. For those charged with drug offenses, black youths are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison.

Similarly, white youths charged with violent offenses are incarcerated for an average of 193 days, while blacks are incarcerated an average of 254 days and Latinos an average of 305 days.

Nationally, the report found that blacks under 18 make up 15 percent of their age group, but they are 26 percent of those young people arrested, 31 percent of those sent to juvenile court, 44 percent of those detained in juvenile jails and 32 percent of those found guilty of being a delinquent.

Similarly, young blacks account for 46 percent of juveniles tried in adult criminal courts, 40 percent of those sent to juvenile prisons and 58 percent of juveniles confined in adult prisons.

CUMULATIVE DISPARITIES

“The implications of these disparities are very serious,” said Mark Soler, the president of the Youth Law Center, a research and advocacy group in Washington who also is the leader of the coalition of civil rights and youth advocacy organizations that organized the research project.

“These disparities accumulate, and they make it hard for members of the minority community to complete their education, get jobs and be good husbands and fathers,” Soler said.

The report, “And Justice for Some,” does not address why such sharp racial imbalances exist. But Soler suggested that the cause lies not so much in overt discrimination as in “the stereotypes that the decision-makers at each point of the system rely on.” A judge looking at a young person, Soler said, may be influenced by the defendant’s baggy pants or the fact that he does not have a father.

In the past, when studies have found racial disparities in the number of adult African American or Latino prison inmates, critics have said the cause was simply that minorities commit a disproportionate number of crimes. That may be true, Soler said, but it does not account for the extreme disparities found in the report, nor for disparities at each stage of the juvenile justice process.

“When you look at this data, it is undeniable that race is a factor,” Soler said.

FUNDED BY SEVERAL GROUPS

The report, the most thorough of its kind, is based on national and state data initially compiled by the FBI; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a Justice Department agency; the Census Bureau and the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

An unusual feature of the report is that its costs were underwritten by the Justice Department and several leading foundations: the Ford Foundation; the MacArthur Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Walter Johnson Foundation; the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which specializes in issues relating to young people; and the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, said, “This report leaves no doubt that we are faced with a very serious national civil rights issue, virtually making our system juvenile injustice.”

Soler and the coalition that put the report together want Congress to give the Justice Department at least $100 million to study and fix racial disparities and require states to spend a quarter of their federal juvenile justice grants on the issue.

A spokesman for Rep. Bill McCollum, the Florida Republican who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, said he would have no comment because he had not seen the report. McCollum sponsored a bill last year that would have increased the number of juveniles tried in adult court.

The report can be found on the Web at www.buildingblocksforyouth.org.

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