Ending the ‘Virus’ of Bigotry in Youth Justice

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Black youth

Photo by Ryan McGuire Bells Design via Flickr

In this moment, our nation is facing a multitude of viruses. We are battling not just COVID-19, but the diseases of racism and injustice.

Across the country, people are calling for the dismantling of the structural racism on which our systems were built. COVID-19, police brutality, mass incarceration, school push-out, homelessness, and too many other social ills disproportionately impact Black families.

We cannot continue to merely discuss these problems. We must take concrete action to correct them.

A new report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, for example, shows that overall, youth incarceration has decreased by almost 60 percent between 1997 and 2017.

Those gains have been primarily to the benefit of white children.

The report notes that 67 percent of youth in placement in 2017 were Black, though Black youth only make up 13 percent of the general population. The national detention rate for Black youth, the report stated, was six times higher than for their white peers, despite similar rates of engaging in delinquent behavior.

Naomi Evans

Naomi Evans

These vast disparities shouldn’t exist. In fact, the youth justice system is in many ways better equipped than other systems to address and dismantle systemic racism.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), first passed in 1974, and most recently reauthorized in 2018, is one of very few pieces of federal law that directly requires states to address racial and ethnic disparities.

The JJDPA at its heart aims to reduce incarceration and connect young people with the supports and services that they need to be successful in their communities. As such, it provides four core protections for young people.

It prohibits the detention of youth charged with status offense behaviors, such as running away from home or skipping school. It ensures that young people are not placed in adult jails and lockups. It provides that if, under rare exceptions, they are held in an adult facility, they cannot have sight or sound contact with adult inmates.

And its most recently added core protection ensures that states take concrete and actionable steps to address the racial and ethnic disparities that we see at every decision point in the justice system— from arrest to incarceration—in nearly every city across our country.

The requirement to address racial and ethnic disparities is often referred to as “the fourth core protection.” To do the work correctly, though, it must not be viewed as a separate protection, but the core protection that undergirds all of our work.

We cannot meaningfully work to reduce detention of youth charged with status offenses, for example, without considering disparate impacts that our policy changes may have on Black youth.

3,200 U.S. Kids Sleep in Adult Jails Every Night

The same is true of jail removal. There are more than 3,200 children every night who sleep in adult jails, and more than enough space in youth facilities to hold them. An adult jail is no place for a child; and the overwhelming majority of youth housed in adult jails are youth of color.

We cannot address the provisions found in the Act related to girls, or education, without also taking in to account the need to address the racism that exists within our system and how outcomes for our children have differed not based on the type of offense committed, but on the color of a young person’s skin.

In the months and years that follow COVID-19, we have the opportunity to ensure all children get the benefits of best practice and community supports. The Annie E Casey Foundation has found a 24 percent drop in detention since the pandemic began, but only a modest decrease in reductions in commitment—thus indicating that referrals were down significantly and that arrests have not increased during the pandemic.

Marcy Mistrett

Marcy Mistrett

This is a call to all of us to do better.

Seventy percent of children who are incarcerated are behind bars for low-level offenses like loitering and public nuisance offenses, or for technical violations of probation. None of these children belong in secure care. They (and we) would be much better off wrapping services around the child and their family in the community. Black children deserve the benefits of these interventions as much as their white counterparts.

The work that is required of states under the JJDPA is the exact work that we as a country need to be embracing and undertaking in this moment. The time to move from viewing racial and ethnic disparities as merely one of many provisions in a lengthy law is now.

But we must also recognize that it is the heart of the work that we must be doing to truly improve our justice systems.

It’s time to fully fund—and fully implement— the JJDPA.

Naomi Evans is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. They are co-chairs of the Act-4-JJ Coalition which advocates for implementation and funding of the JJDPA.

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