Tackling Racial Disparity Called Key to Youth Justice Reform

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Photo by Ryan McGuire/ Bells Design via Flickr

Racial disparities are at the core of what’s wrong with today’s approach to youth justice, and little will change unless authorities recognize that, according to a leading youth advocate.

“If we try to talk about justice and the [youth] justice system without talking about race, then we’re missing the whole thing,” says Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie  E. Casey Foundation.

Nate Balis

Nate Balis

“All young people push the boundaries of authority, that’s what it means  to be adolescent; and yet some kids get arrested and some kids don’t.

“The deeper we get, the more we’re likely to see youth of color rather than white kids in the system.”

Balis was speaking at the opening session of a Fall-Winter series of online workshops for journalists on the challenges of youth justice reform. The workshops are supported by the Tow Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation, and organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

Participants at the workshops also heard compelling arguments from impacted young people themselves for change, at a time when the pandemic has upended criminal justice systems across the country.

“During a time like this, kids aren’t the priority,” said Iliana Pujols, director of Community Connections  at the CT Juvenile Alliance in Connecticut, who has been involved in the  justice system as a young adult.

Balis joined Pujols and other speakers in appealing for more attention to the perspectives of young people ensnared in the system.

“If we are not listening to what young people say they need, we’re not really going to address equity in the juvenile justice system,” he said.

Balis,  who formerly worked in Washington, D.C.’s Department of Rehabilitation Services, said the disproportional racial makeup of  young people confined in detention facilities or shunted through the system strikes even foreign visitors.

“When we had a delegation from Morocco come see us after having visited Baltimore’s youth detention center, they had only one question they wanted to ask us: why were all the faces of the kids brown?” he recalled.

Balis said reforming the system has to begin by acknowledging the fact that black and white youth are punished differently, “but being aware of disparities, and actually addressing them are two very different things.”

“From my experience, there are not nearly enough system leaders and policymakers who are curious enough to really even understand the reasons behind the numbers, let alone take meaningful action.”

According to Balis, one of the roots of the problem is that arrest and incarceration are still the automatic response to misbehavior of youths of color, most of them living in at-risk neighborhoods, even though arrest and incarceration rates of young people have been declining.

He noted that the pandemic, in a curious way, may have opened the door to real change.

With many youth facilities releasing young people or reducing the number of those inside because of the risk of infection, authorities have begun to realize that keeping kids close to their communities and families presents little risk to public safety, he said.

“Everything we know tells us that locking kids up doesn’t work,” said Balis. “Interventions in the community is a much more effective way to reduce the likelihood of them coming back in the system.”

The pandemic may also be precedent-shattering in another way: the financial pressures  imposed by the pandemic on municipal and state budgets could force authorities to rethink how they invest taxpayers’ money in youth custody.

“Sometimes the hardest things to cut are the fixed costs associated with locking kids up,” Balis said. “But the juvenile justice system has an opportunity at this moment to hold on to the things that are working the best,  and get rid of the things that are not.”

The workshop continues Friday.  For a schedule of conferences, please click here.

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