Tackling the Racial Divide in Juvenile Justice

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Photo by Runs With Scissors via Flickr

The decision to remove a child from home is a grave one. Institutional confinement harms young people, and that harm falls disproportionately on young people and families of color.

Given that any facility where people are living in close quarters has the potential for a full-blown health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic underscores the belief by advocates and researchers that young people belong with their families — not in institutions.

For the past several years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has partnered with communities across the United States to reduce all forms of unnecessary confinement, especially for youth of color. This starts with detention reform at the front-end of the juvenile justice system through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative® (JDAI), and extends to the “deep end.”

Danielle Lipow

Danielle Lipow

The “deep end” describes the range of residential institutions where young people are sentenced — or disposed, in juvenile justice terms. That includes youth prisons, treatment centers and group homes.

Beginning in 2013, the Casey Foundation has been working with selected communities to develop an approach to deep-end reform. The strategy has achieved impressive early results.

The participating communities pinpoint decision points that offer them the greatest opportunities to counter disparities and steer young people away from the formal justice system and back into communities, with a focus on creating equitable opportunities for all youth.

Targeted changes in policy, practice, programs and partnerships sustain the approach.

We began with four jurisdictions; another seven joined in 2015, and a 12th in 2019. For a map showing location of the pilot programs, see  below.


Deep-End Sites grouped by year their participation began. Map by Annie E. Casey Foundation

While the work is ongoing, early results show that many of the jurisdictions have significantly outpaced the national average in reducing confinement — especially for African-American youth.

Leading With Race

White and Asian youth who break the law are most likely to get second chances to realize their potential by avoiding sentencing to a juvenile facility. African-American, Latino and Native American youth typically don’t get the same chance to become productive adults.

Despite an impressive drop in youth incarceration — down 54 percent between 2005 and 2017 — and national reduction in juvenile crime, the data show indisputably that extreme racial and ethnic disparities persist.

At virtually every point in the juvenile justice system, young people of color experience more restrictive consequences than their white counterparts.


Table by Annie E. Casey Foundation

The disparities are most striking at the deep end of the system, after disposition. African- American young people are more than four times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers.

No single decision point creates or explains these disparities, which are deeply rooted in the nation’s history of slavery, inequitable opportunity and discrimination. Centuries of systemic racism have led to what are essentially two juvenile justice systems: one for white teenagers and one for teens of color.

For jurisdictions to achieve a fairer and more equitable justice system at the deep end, they need strategies that are explicitly race-conscious. They need strategies powerful enough to counteract systems that have routinely conferred advantage and disadvantage based on skin color and deprived communities of color of important resources.

The ‘Deep-End’ Highway

In a new report entitled “Leading with Race to Reimagine Youth Justice: JDAI’s Deep-End Initiative,” the Casey Foundation introduces the concepts that have framed our pilot program.

Imagine the juvenile justice system as a highway that starts with normal teenage behavior and ends in confinement. As with any highway, there are multiple exit ramps along the way which could create a path away from confinement and back into communities — toward diversion or community-based programs.

Many of those exits are attached to on-ramps that lead right back to the highway, such as when a young person on probation is returned to the highway for failing to participate in a specific program as a condition of probation.

Throughout the country, those exits are more accessible to white teenagers than to young people of color. Even when youth of color leave the highway, they are more likely to be redirected back onto the highway via an on-ramp. For example, youth of color are more likely to be confined for technical violations of probation than white youth.

So as the highway approaches confinement, the “traffic” consists increasingly of youth of color, especially African-American boys.

In order to get young people off the highway as early as possible, systems must work simultaneously on three fronts: create new exits, expand access to existing exits and close on-ramps.

Early Results

As noted above, the early results from the pilot programs indicate impressive results in reducing inequitable youth confinement at the same time as these places reported lower juvenile crime rates.

For example, by leveraging strong community partnerships with system and non-system organizations in the city, St. Louis saw a 79 percent reduction in youth confinement between 2012 and 2018, with young people of color accounting for 95 percent of the change.

In Ramsey County, Minn.— home to St. Paul — officials, in line with community advocates, scrapped plans for a large residential facility and invested $500,000 annually in funding to alternatives to incarceration. The county reduced its deep-end placements by nearly 60 percent since 2014. African American youth accounted for 91 percent of the change.

The most recent national data show a 25 percent reduction in confinement since 2012, and an 8 percent reduction since 2015. Both cohorts of deep-end sites have outpaced the national averages. Reductions in the initial deep-end sites ranged from 43 percent to 67 percent from 2012 to 2017; the deep-end sites that started two years later reported reductions in confinement for African American youth of at least 25 percent and as much as 65 percent from 2014 to 2017.


table by Annie E. Casey Foundation

In addition to St. Louis and Ramsey County, Minn., the other demonstration sites are:

        • Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), New Mexico
        • Lucas County (Toledo), Ohio
        • Marion County (Indianapolis), Indiana
        • Camden County, New Jersey
        • Dakota County, Minnesota
        • Franklin County (Columbus), Ohio
        • Hennepin County (Minneapolis), Minnesota
        • Pierce County (Takoma), Washington
        • Ramsey County (St. Paul), Minnesota
        • Summit County (Akron), Ohio
        • Harris County (Houston), Texas

This work is ongoing, but the outlook is promising.

Lower confinement rates mean more young people safely at home and connected to positive activities and caring adults. They mean more young people protected from the disruptive effects of placement in secure facilities and other out-of-home settings.

All young people — no matter their race, ethnicity or ZIP code — deserve the chance to realize their potential. The way to get them there is by building a fairer and more equitable justice system.

Danielle Lipow is a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md.

One thought on “Tackling the Racial Divide in Juvenile Justice

  1. Discussions of this subject are compromised by failure to understand that generally reducing any outcome, including criminal justice outcomes, tends to increase, not reduce, relative difference in rates of experiencing the outcome (while reducing relative differences in rates of avoiding the outcome). See my:“Race and Mortality Revisited,” Society (July/Aug. 2014) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12115-014-9790-1#page-1. [For a list of other articles, pls contact the poster]

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