Race and Juvenile Justice

“Today, 50 years after Gault, youth of color continue to be disproportionately suspended and expelled, arrested, processed in courts rather than diverted, detained in secure facilities and transferred to adult court for prosecution.” — Professor Kristin Henning, reflecting on racial disparities in the juvenile justice system 50 years after the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the right to due process, including to defense counsel, for juveniles in delinquency proceedings.

Racial Disparities    Race and Juvenile Justice Resources    Additional Resources on Race and the Criminal Legal System

According to the Sentencing Project, overall juvenile placements fell 54% between 2001 and 2015, with reductions in numbers for white, Black, Latinx, and Native youth. Yet because white placements declined at a faster rate, significant existing racial disparities in juvenile placements widened even further. The racial disparity between Black and white youth in custody increased by 22%—Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed than were white youth in 2015 (September 2017). During that time, racial disparities increased in 37 states and declined in 13 states. The disparity between Native and white youth increased nationally by 14% between 2001 and 2015, but in some states the disparity grew more dramatically, so much as doubling in Arizona (October 2017).

Broad discretion across the juvenile justice system means that implicit, and sometimes explicit, bias can manifest in decisions spanning the entire juvenile justice process. A 2017 report out of the Center on Poverty and Inequity at Georgetown Law examines the disparate treatment of Black girls by various system actors:

  • Black girls are 2.7 times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice and are 1.2 times more likely to be detained.
  • Black girls are three times more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in state custody than are white girls.
  • Prosecutors are 20% more likely to formally petition in cases involving Black girls than in cases involving white girls.
  • Judges consistently hand down more severe dispositions to Black girls than to white girls, even after accounting for seriousness of the offense, prior record, and age.

The Georgetown Law report argues that “the perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.” This “adultification” of Black youth, and especially of Black girls, likely contributes to the disproportionate representation of Black girls who are incarcerated; according to Prison Policy Initiative, Black girls comprise 35% of the population of girls who are locked up, Latina girls account for 19%, and white girls account for 38% (October 2019).

While overall rates of juvenile incarceration have declined across demographic groups, the rates at which Black kids are being transferred to adult courts are among the highest in 30 years of data collection (National Association of Social Workers, 2018). Judicial discretion certainly plays a large role: Black youth make up 47.3% of youth transferred to adult court by juvenile court judges who believe they cannot benefit from the juvenile system, despite making up only 14% of the total youth population. Data from a 2016 study in Florida show even more stark racial disparities regarding youth in the adult criminal legal system (National Association of Social Workers, 2018):

  • Black youth made up 67.7% of mandatory and discretionary direct file transfers in 2016, even though they are only 21% of the youth population.
  • Black and Hispanic youth were significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to serve time in an adult jail when transferred to adult court.
  • Judges gave Black youth prison sentences that were, on average, 7.8% longer than the prison sentences they gave to white youth for the same type of offense.

The consequences of these practices, and these disparities, are severe—youth in the adult criminal legal system are more likely to commit suicide, have psychiatric symptoms, and to recidivate than are youth in juvenile facilities.

Reform efforts to address issues in the juvenile justice system should focus on reducing racial disparities at all levels, from interactions with police, to court systems and transfer mechanisms, to the facilities themselves. Extensive data, disaggregated by race and gender, is critical to understanding the scope and causes of racial disparities and to creating trajectories for change.

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Additional Juvenile Justice Resources

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