While juvenile incarcerated populations have dropped by about 60 percent in the past 20 years, racial disparities persist in the youth justice system, says a panel of scholars and experts.
White justice-involved youth receive alternatives to juvenile detention at greater rates than youth of color, said David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.
And that too often leaves Black and Hispanic youth at the mercy of a system oriented towards ”how we can fix you,” rather than offer them avenues for positive development, Muhammad told a webinar organized Wednesday by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) at George Mason University and the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center (JPRC).
Muhammad added that the decrease in the population of incarcerated juveniles could be misleading.
“It’s just down from a pandemic level of mass incarceration of youth in this country,” he said.
A second speaker Nancy Rodriguez, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine, said Latinx youth were often undercounted and their problems underestimated because they were often misclassified as white.
Overall juvenile placements fell 54 percent between 2001 and 2015, with reductions in numbers for white, Black, Latinx, and Native youth; but white placements declined faster as racial disparities widened, says the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The best way to address this, according to Sean Darling-Hammond, the founder and principle of BIT Justice, LLC, research associated at WestED, and a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, is to implement restorative justice practices, especially in schools.
Research has demonstrated that exposure to punitive discipline in schools depresses academic performance and increases odds of arrest and adult incarceration, Darling-Hammond said.
He cited one study that found even when student behavior was held constant, teachers still responded more harshly to Black students. This was because when a Black student misbehaved, teachers were more likely to label them “troublemakers.”
Other studies support that finding.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Black children are more than twice as likely as white kids to be arrested, even though they’re not committing more crimes, but because Black Kids are burdened by a “presumption of guilt and dangerousness,” which leads youth of color to have higher rates of stops, searches, violence, suspension, and disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice system.
The “troublemaker” label follows children of color though their life, causing them to end up in juvenile facilities much more than white children.
Restorative justice practices, which discourage misbehavior not via punishment or exclusion, but by improving and repairing relationships, can help to bridge this gap, Darling-Hammond said.
He maintained that it can help improve and repair relationships as well as nurture social and emotional skills in order to help children and teachers respond to conflict and maintain harm.
Through introducing restorative justice practices, there was a significant decrease in school suspensions of Black students, says Darling-Hammond.
Darling-Hammond stressed that schools with predominantly students of color need to make sure that restorative justice becomes part of school culture, with appropriate training for teachers.
Gabriela Felitto is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.