Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Youth Justice System

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By Nora Leonard, CJJ Intern

Throughout the United States, youth of color are overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system. In 2019, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), American Indian youth were 1.5 times more likely, and Black youth were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than White youths. In Washington, D.C. alone, Black youth are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than White youth. The racial inequities are glaring, and there is a growing body of research to suggest that incarceration and court involvement are harmful to young people. Reducing overall involvement with the youth justice system is essential to eliminating racial and ethnic inequities and providing the best possible outcome for all youth. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports that, although White youth represent 75% of the adolescent population, they make up only 45% of arrests for violent crimes. In comparison, Black youth, who represent 15% of the population, are involved in 52% of juvenile arrests for violent crimes. When it comes to property crimes, White youth make up 56% of arrests while Black youth account for 40%. Officers who encounter young people of color may be predisposed to see them as more criminal than their White peers. OJJDP provides an alternate perspective on these statistics. The youth arrest rate per 100,000 young people is around 1,274.8 for all youth. For White youth, this number is 1,080.2; for minority youth in general, the youth arrest rate is 1,859.0; when looking specifically at Black youth, the youth arrest rate is 2,487.1. In other words, minority youth are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested by their White peers. For Black youth, the ratio jumps to 2.3; Black youth are more than twice as likely to be arrested than White youth. This inequality becomes even starker when looking at gender differences. Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested than White girls. School discipline is an important and often overlooked factor that contributes to justice system involvement. Middle and high school students suspended or expelled from school are nearly three times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. According to a Child Trends publication, Black students receive out-of-school suspensions twice as often as White students, and Latino students are slightly more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than White youths.

After adjudication, youth of color are more likely to be placed in detention centers than White youth. According to OJJDP, Black and Latino youth are the most likely to be incarcerated; 32% of their cases resulted in institutional placements, while 27% of cases involving American Indians, 23% involving White youth, and 20% involving Asian youth resulted in incarceration. OJJDP also notes that 41% of incarcerated young people are Black, despite making up only 15% of the adolescent population. Put differently, for every 100,000 Black youths, 315 are in custody, and for every 100,000 Latino youths, 92 are in custody, compared to 72 white youths per 100,000. Racial biases play a large role in legal outcomes for young people of color. Eberhart and colleagues conducted a study in which police officers were primed with crime-related images and then shown a White face and a Black face. Officers paid more attention to the Black faces. Officers who were thinking about crime tended to associate criminality with people of color. Furthermore, prosecutors are more likely to label crimes committed by Black youth as “aggravated,” whereas equivalent crimes committed by White youth may be presented as “mistakes.” 

Beyond being incarcerated at higher rates, youth of color are released from detention at a lower rate. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, juvenile detention centers released youth at higher rates than usual. By May 2020, White children were being released at a 17% higher rate than Black youth. Since then, the number of incarcerated White youth has remained at the lowest it has been since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the population of Latino and Black incarcerated juveniles has risen slightly, although it has not returned to the pre-pandemic levels. Researchers have found that those who decide which kids are released, (judges, prosecutors, probation officers, etc.) are mostly White and tend to exhibit more empathy toward kids who look like them.

Detention and incarceration seriously affect young people, and youth of color are severely impacted by their disproportionate representation in the juvenile justice system. First, previously incarcerated youth face higher mortality rates than those who had never been detained. Research findings reveal that the mortality rate is nearly six times higher for previously incarcerated youth than for the general population. Incarceration also affects young people’s mental health; it is associated with depression and suicidal thoughts. Juvenile detention may also contribute to poor education and career outcomes later in life.

Furthermore, research has shown that secure custody is the least effective option for reducing youth recidivism. Youth incarceration is also correlated with reoffense, and longer stays in correctional facilities are associated with higher recidivism rates. Additionally, early involvement in the justice system is associated with reincarceration in adulthood, as around 30% of incarcerated adults were first detained in childhood or adolescence. For young people of color, these negative effects are compounded by the racial trauma experienced at the hands of judges, law enforcement, and school administrators.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sponsored a bill that aims to reduce reliance on incarceration and ensure that youth, especially youth of color, are being provided with evidence-based and culturally appropriate services. Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO-6) has introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives. The Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System Act of 2022 takes policies from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 and amends them to be more sensitive to the racial disparities prevalent in the juvenile justice system. This bill aims to implement programs to reduce racial and ethnic disparities at every level of the system, ideally eliminating racial inequity and reducing incarceration for all youth. The bill stresses the importance of alternative interventions and aims to promote trauma-informed, evidence-based, and culturally responsive support and services. As research has shown, involvement in the justice system can have detrimental effects on children and adolescents. Because youth of color are disproportionately involved in the system, they are more severely impacted by those effects.

Youth of color are arrested and incarcerated more frequently and released at a lower rate than White youth. Research has shown that interaction with the juvenile justice system negatively affects physical and mental health. The most efficient and effective way to mitigate these effects is by diverting young individuals from becoming involved in the system. The Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice Systems Act of 2022 aims to reduce the reliance on youth incarceration and focus resources on creating evidence-based interventions. Diversion and equity will make communities safer and protect the next generation of children. 

We call on Congress to pass the Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System Act of 2022 this session and to ensure that a reauthorized version of the JJDPA makes clear the importance of action addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.