The reforms of Maine’s juvenile justice system are the envy of many states, but if you're a young African-American who gets in trouble at school, you're still more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to a report by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service, black youths in Maine's Androscoggin County are arrested at a rate more than three times higher than their white counterparts. And black youths in the Lewiston, Maine area are detained at nearly twice the rate of white youths,
A Portland lawyer who heads the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law pointed to the Lewiston school system as one feeder for youths of color into the justice system.
“As far as we can tell, the Lewiston schools have been expelling a lot of kids, more than any other school system in the state,” said Christopher Northrup, a clinical professor at the law school.
“And many of the children they're expelling are children of color. There's a significant correlation between kids who are out of school and kids who get detained.”
In only six of Maine’s 16 counties were there enough minority youths coming in contact with police and the juvenile judicial system to be considered statistically significant. Of those six, the report says, minority youths in five of the counties experienced disproportionately high levels of contact with law enforcement and subsequent points in the state’s juvenile justice system.
But none were as high as in Androscoggin County.
The 55-page report, released this month, also details observations shared by 28 youths and their parents during interviews over the past year that highlight their experiences, largely negative, with Maine’s juvenile justice system. The report also offers recommendations aimed at fixing the problems.
In Auburn and Lewiston, as well as in the 12 surrounding towns in the county, black youths are charged with crimes at 1.3 times the rate of white youths, according to the report.
Yet, black youths in this county were diverted from the juvenile justice system at less than half the rate of white youths, meaning black youths are twice as likely to advance deeper into the juvenile justice system, instead of being steered away from the courtroom and into community intervention programs and other non-judicial avenues.
Although Maine holds the distinction of being the whitest state in the nation demographically, like most states, it shows disproportionate minority contact along the juvenile justice spectrum among its relatively small nonwhite youth population, according to the report.
The study has limitations: There is no breakdown of data by municipality or by ethnicity. In Lewiston, for example, where there is a significant Somali community, rates for black/African-American youths include Somali juveniles. The report doesn’t distinguish between segments of the black population. The authors were bound by arrest data as they appeared in census categories collected by the Maine Department of Public Safety, which doesn't provide ethnic distinctions within racial classifications.
The deeper they went into the juvenile justice system, the smaller the youth populations researchers were able to work with. For that reason, statistical significance becomes more difficult to show nearer to the end stages of the juvenile justice system. In some cases, the report’s authors had to mix groups, such as blacks and African-Americans with other minority groups to achieve statistically significant findings.
In other cases, there are no findings at all because of a lack of statistically significant data.
The report credits those who work in Maine’s juvenile justice system, especially the Maine Department of Corrections, with key reforms over time, while pointing to troubling rates in racial disparity.
“Although Maine’s system has been credited for its progressive reforms, contact with the juvenile justice system too often leads to poor outcomes into adulthood,” the report says.
“Thus, whenever safely possible, it is desirable to prevent youth from progressing toward subsequent contact points.”
Aside from some downward trending rates for disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system in some counties, the good news in Maine juvenile justice system not highlighted by the study is an overall decline in numbers of juveniles in the system.
Two years ago, roughly 5,000 youths had contact with Maine’s juvenile justice system. That number has dropped to about 3,000, noted one of the report’s authors, Erica King, who is a policy associate in the Justice Police Program at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
“I am proud to work in a state and with colleagues who genuinely have the best interest of children at heart,” she said. “And yet, juvenile incarceration is the biggest predictor of adult incarceration and has significant economic and social costs to youth and to taxpayers.
“Maine has the lowest incarceration rates of any of the 50 states,” King said. “We have award-winning juvenile facilities and yet Maine, like other juvenile and criminal justice systems across America, is still part of a larger system that needs reform. There are proven risks of detaining youth and we must continue to invest in community-based alternatives, especially for young people who end up there because no one is willing and able to supervise, not because they are dangerous.
“They might have made some poor decisions, but they would be safe with support and accountability in the community with a reinvestment of resources.”
The full report is available HERE.
Chris Williams, a staff writer for The Sun-Journal in Lewiston, Me, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting fellow. The above is an abridged version of a story that appeared on May 15, the first in a series of stories that examine juvenile justice issues in Maine and in the Twin Cities. For the complete version, click HERE.