Racial Disparities Persist Despite Reductions in Juvenile Incarceration

Racial Disparities Persist Despite Reductions in Juvenile Incarceration

January 12, 2015 | David Muhammad

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Over the last several years, the number of youth incarcerated throughout the country has fallen steadily. Juvenile justice reform efforts have taken hold across the nation, as states begin to move away from harsh corrections-focused systems. A new “Smart on Crime” movement has bipartisan support to reduce incarceration and increase services for youth. New York, New Jersey, Missouri, California, and many states in between have seen significant reductions in juvenile detention.

Over the last several years, the number of youth incarcerated throughout the country has fallen steadily. Juvenile justice reform efforts have taken hold across the nation, as states begin to move away from harsh corrections-focused systems. A new “Smart on Crime” movement has bipartisan support to reduce incarceration and increase services for youth. New York, New Jersey, Missouri, California, and many states in between have seen significant reductions in juvenile detention. In the past ten years, the number of youth confined in county and state facilities has dropped from 100,000 to 65,000.

California has seen the largest decline in youth incarcerated in its state facilities. The California Youth Authority was notorious for its harsh treatment of youth, including widely publicized beatings by guards and huge rates of recidivism. Since 1996, after years of pressure from advocates, media attention, and a major lawsuit, the number of youth in the state-run juvenile correctional facilities was reduced by an astounding 93 percent, from over 10,000 to 689 in 2013.

Despite this tremendous progress, one negative trend continues to persist—large racial and ethnic disparities in the number of youth incarcerated.

Racial disparities remain, for example, in California’s juvenile system. Although African-Americans comprise just six percent of California’s population, they make up 27 percent of youth in state juvenile facilities. Latinos make up 39 percent of the state, but are a majority 59 percent of youth in state lockups. 

Racial disparities exist across the continuum of juvenile engagement with police and the corrections systems. In 2013, Black youth comprised 14 percent of the national juvenile population, but accounted for 34 percent of juvenile arrests. During that same year, Black youth comprised 23 percent of all juvenile felony arrests in California while only accounting for 6 percent of the state’s population.

The US Department of Education, in a March 2014 issue brief, notes that while Black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest. This makes African American youth 80 percent more likely to be arrested in school than White youth.

In the 1980s, Missouri abolished its old warehouse correctional training schools and replaced them with rehabilitation and education-focused youth centers that have become renowned for their extraordinary outcomes. The “Missouri Model” has been replicated in Washington, DC, Louisiana, New York City, and parts of California. The “Show Me State” is credited with having the lowest recidivism rate of any juvenile justice system in the country.

Despite the state’s great success, disproportionality still reigns. According to the annual census report released by the federal juvenile justice division, in 2011, Black youth represented 16 percent of the Missouri’s juvenile population, but accounted for 40 percent of youth residing in juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities. 

So why is there still disproportionality when so much ground has been gained? The evidence is clear: racial bias exists in school disciplinary decisions by school administrators, arrest patterns by police, charging decisions by prosecutors, adjudication and disposition decisions by judges, and out-of-home placement and probation violation decisions by probation departments.

There are effective trainings on implicit bias and cultural competency that law enforcement and system staff should complete. But there are also systematic tools that can be implemented to make decisions based on data that limit the bias of individuals.

For the youth who are currently in the system, we need to improve their outcomes—particularly for those who are overrepresented. There are successful approaches, like Positive Youth Development and mentoring, that are making a difference. NCCD, in its Social Innovation Fund Pay for Success work, is looking for project partners in jurisdictions who want to use Pay for Success financing to help reduce disparity in the juvenile justice system. New funding approaches like Pay for Success may help us push past some of the traditional systemic barriers of government funding.

We invite you to read more about using Pay for Success to ameliorate this problems—including NCCD’s current open solicitation for proposals—by clicking here.