Juvenile Justice in the 21st Century: Sifting Through the Trends (Blog 2/3: Race and Ethnicity)

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By Igor Geyn

Note: The term 'Latinx' used throughout refers to youth of Hispanic and / or Latino ancestry. In cases where the term is used in reference to OJJDP or other data, it is intended to refer to youth who are identified as Hispanic / Latino in the relevant data source's data collection protocol (e.g., survey questionnaires, data collection, etc.).

It is not news that our juvenile justice system reinforces existing inequalities, injustices, and failings in American society. More than two-thirds of the 48,043 youth in residential placement in 2015 were youth of color (YOC) despite the fact they account for less than one-quarter of the overall U.S. youth population.

From discrepancies in arrest rates to differences in detention rates and facility type for youth in residential placement, the reality of the justice system for YOC – especially Black and Latinx youth – is materially different from that of white youth. YOC are more likely to come into contact with law enforcement, and more likely to be placed in residential placement after adjudication. Using similar data and methods as the first post in this series, this blog will highlight examples that illustrate how the documented decline in youth incarceration has benefitted some racial and ethnic groups more than others.

By leaning heavily on the important work done across various media (including Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking The New Jim Crow), I hope to show how a broken juvenile justice system is both a symptom and a driver of broader social imbalance and injustice. More than that, however, I hope to show that the challenges are complicated rather than unsolvable, and that there is opportunity for action, advocacy, and organizing towards a more equitable juvenile justice system; indeed, brave leaders have already started the work.

The first post in this series looked at trends like the decline in overall number of youth in residential placement and declining federal funding for both traditional detention and community-based programs, and focused broadly on the populations for which there are reliable data. What this line of analysis gained in generalizability it lacked in important details: There were not 104,728 identical boys and girls in residential placement in 1997 or 48,043 identical boys and girls in residential placement in 2015, but rather tens of thousands of youth with unique stories and experiences.

Each of these individuals represented a community with a distinct juvenile justice experience – while race and ethnicity were not especially useful predictors of the type of crime committed (property offenses vs. person offenses, etc.), they were helpful in explaining the overall composition of youth residential facilities and the type of facility that youth were placed into: YOC were more likely than white youth to be detained after an arrest, and were more likely to be placed into higher security facilities than white youth. Studies of the criminal justice system in the United States arrive at a similar conclusion – racial bias is manifest throughout the system, and is tied to the remnants of structural, race-driven inequality both within the system and outside of it.

More worryingly, YOC continue to be underserved by the juvenile justice system even after detention processing. In addition to being arrested, adjudicated, and detained at higher rates than white youth, YOC are more likely to face adverse conditions such as harmful neglect, involuntary restraint, and even solitary confinement. A report by Jon C. Rogowski and Cathy J. Cohen entitled “Black Millennials in America” shows that Black youth are especially vulnerable to this risk, facing the potential for these abuses at alarmingly high rates.

In youth residential placement, we see a microcosm of the juvenile justice system as a whole. Even including youth of Latinx origin, the share of white youth in residential placement (31-38% between 1995-2015) is no more than half the share of the overall youth population that is white (76-79% over the same period). Conversely, while comprising less than one-fifth (16-17%) of the overall youth population over the same time period, Black youth make up 40-42% of youth in residential placement. Due to the structure of the data used, estimates of the Latinx youth population were not readily separable from overall estimates – however, the share of boys and girls  in residential placement made up of Latinx youth (18-22% over the time period) is trending past the share of the overall U.S. population that is Latinx (18%).

Note: Based on 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) estimates of the total U.S. resident population. Approximately 16% of the white population identifies with Hispanic or Latino origin (Latinx), while 3% of the Black population and less than 1% of the Asian and Native American/American Indian population identify as Latinx.
Sources: Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2017). "Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement." Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/; 2016 American Community Survey (ACS), U.S. Census Bureau.

Knowing the history of juvenile justice in America means knowing that an individual’s racial background, gender, and other immutable characteristics are highly related to the individual’s experience in the justice system. A study documented in The Chronicle of Social Change shows that youth from certain neighborhoods are more likely to be arrested and involved in the juvenile justice system, even when controlling for potential confounding variables like differences in individual delinquent behavior. According to the article, the study – conducted by UC Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health – “raises concerns that policing policies may differ based on the racial composition of the neighborhood.”

Disparities in juvenile justice begin prior to adjudication and detention. An April 2016 study by Joshua Rovner and The Sentencing Project reveals that discrepancies in youth residential placement are driven by disparities at the point of arrest. Specifically, Rovner cites the fact that Black youth are much more likely to be arrested for non-violent offenses than white youth. Rovner goes on to state the cost of such disparities in clear terms: “The public and policymakers can celebrate the sharp drops in overall juvenile incarceration and a falling arrest rate. However, it is clear that these changes are not impacting communities of color at the same pace as white communities.”

Both existing work and the analysis conducted for this blog arrive at the same conclusion: Discrepancies in rates of arrest and residential placement of Black youth are not explained by differences in the types of offenses being committed by youth. The groups most likely to commit person offenses like assault and robbery – Pacific Islanders and Asians – are detained at rates more proportional to their share of the population, while Black youth, who are just 5% more likely to commit person offenses than white youth, are incarcerated at a dramatically higher rate. Across the six reported racial and ethnic groups, the share of total committed  offenses made up by the most violent offense types (i.e., person, property, and drug offenses) varied by just 10% – 61% of American Indian youth are held for one of these three offense types compared to 71% of Pacific Islander youth. In the absence of an explanation based on variation of offense type, it seems logical there is another explanation ― that is, enforcement and adjudication based on supposition.

Similarly, race and ethnicity do not account for much of the difference in any individual offense type – not counting person offenses, no more than seven points separate the minimum and maximum shares made up by each of the six reported offense types. (For person offenses, the range is just slightly higher – 10%.)

Source: Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2017). "Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement." Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.

As mentioned earlier, the race and ethnicity of a boy or girl in residential treatment is closely related to the type of facility in which he or she will be detained post-adjudication. For all the reasons mentioned in this series’ first blog (e.g., distance from family, physical treatment of youth, presence of solitary confinement, etc.), the type of facility that youth are held in is strongly correlated with the post-detention outcome. A troubling truth arises from the data below: Youth of color are considerably more likely to be held in a detention center or long-term secure facility, as opposed to less secure residential placement facilities or community-based juvenile justice programs.

A few other points stand out, though it is more challenging to weave a theme through them. In 2015, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander youth were the most likely to be held in detention centers – all three were at least six percent more likely to be involved in such facilities than white youth. White youth were also more likely than nearly all other groups to be involved in long-term secure facilities – only Asian youth had a higher share of individuals involved in such centers. Conversely, white youth had the highest proportion of youth involved in residential treatment centers – 28%, five points higher than the total proportion of youth in these centers.

Source: Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2017). "Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement." Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.

The perception and depiction of youth of color, and Black youth in particular, as especially dangerous or threatening is decades, if not centuries, old. Myths dating back to the period of legal slavery in the U.S. persisted through the Jim Crow era and continue to linger today. As the analysis here shows, these ongoing myths are linked to real, negative outcomes for youth of color.

Many individuals who care about racial inequality in the juvenile justice system are likely already aware of how injustice impacts the adult penal system, U.S. housing policy, early childhood education, or the racial and ethnic makeup of healthcare workforces. Still, it is worth considering whether we are comfortable admitting defeat for the next generation. After all, children in the juvenile justice system do not simply disappear. They remain part of our society’s fabric no matter the physical, social, and economic distance we place between ‘us’ and ‘them.’