Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the JJ System: A Time for Reflection

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By Alexandra Staropoli
CJJ Government and Field Relations Associate Director

Fifty years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As thousands gather in Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, all of us might do well to consider how we might help deliver on that dream in our own work. What Dr. King’s vision made clear was that racial and ethnic inequality have no place in a just society, and this is no less true when considering our juvenile justice system.

Racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system have always been a critical focus for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Our 1989 Annual Report to the President, Congress, and the Administrator of OJJDP, specifically focused on the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system:

It is clear from our discussions at our annual conference, from our experience, and from a substantial body of knowledge accumulated by researches that disparities do occur within the juvenile justice system, from arrest to sentence, disparities that are prompted, either consciously or unconsciously, by ethnicity and race. It is not the disparate decisions that should concern us but rather the convergence of a number of unseen forces that permit isolated decision makers of substantially different backgrounds to produce consistent, systemic behavior that is racist in consequence, if not intent.

More minorities are arrested, held in custody in public correctional facilities, and serve harsher criminal penalties for their behavior. But if we look only to the juvenile justice system for remedy, we will fail. As we have seen, the rates of crime and incarceration are highly influenced by demographic factors related to rates of crime and imprisonment, we know age, gender, and race to be among the most significant.

The vastly disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration of various racial groups are produced by economic, family, and community forces, as well as the decisions of the juvenile justice system. Given present trends, we can expect more minority juveniles to come into the juvenile justice system, if we do not adopt some alternative strategies.

CJJ’s 1989 prediction sadly, came to fruition. The 1990’s were characterized by a wave of tough of crime policies, and throughout the decade, youth were arrested and incarcerated, and laws were passed to treat young offenders more harshly at an unprecedented rate, all across the nation. Youth of color bore the brunt of these new “tough-on-crime” policies, and the myth of the young super-predator—often portrayed as urban, Black or Brown young men—was born. 

Now, more than two decades later, research still shows that youth of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, and their overrepresentation only increases as one looks at the deeper end of the system. While awareness of racial and ethnic disparities has certainly increased, and many local jurisdictions have made huge strides in addressing overrepresentation—often with the assistance of approaches such as those supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative—we are far from achieving equitable treatment for all youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

In fact, many of CJJ’s current recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Administrator of OJJDP are identical to those we made in 1989. As the demographics of our nation continue to change, we must bring to the federal level, the exciting and transformative conversations about racial and ethnic disparities that are beginning to happen at the state and local levels.

Recently highlighted in the Models for Change DMC Action Network E-Newsletter, Wisconsin’s Outagamie County serves an example of a jurisdiction that was ready for change. Deciding to tackle racial and ethnic disparities with a family engagement approach, the county was able to reduce its juvenile arrest rate by 32% and the relative rate index for arrests of African Americans from 9.75 to 6.04. Officials in Peoria, Illinois also took action, targeting school-based referrals to the juvenile justice system with a restorative justice approach. The program was effective, and resulted in a 35% reduction in school-based referrals to detention for all youth, and a 43% reduction for African American youth.  

Victories like those in Outagamie County and Peoria should be used on the federal level to initiate conversations about disparities. We must continue to advocate for equitable treatment of all youth and demand federal leadership on these issues from those with the power to implement broad and sustainable systems change.

In the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the federal government has extraordinary leverage to set the standard for how states should address racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems. We must call on federal policymakers to strengthen the Disproportionate Minority Contact core requirement of the JJDPA to ensure equity and competence with regard to race, ethnicity, culture, language, gender, and sexual orientation, in legal representation before the courts and throughout all juvenile justice system practices and policies. We must also call on federal officials to provide leadership, support and resources to states and localities working to reduce disparities within their systems.

CJJ is part of a broad coalition of national groups that are seeking to finally and definitively address this issue—and others—so long ago identified as standing in the way of a fair, just, and equitable juvenile justice system that protects the rights of all youth that enter it. There is still so much work to be done, and we need your help to do it.

Join us on September 10th for a Day of Action, as we celebrate the 39th Anniversary of the JJDPA, and call on our leaders to address the issues plaguing our nation’s youth. To stand for a fair and equitable juvenile justice system, and one that is adequately resourced to deliver on the mandates of the JJDPA, participate in the Day of Action by contacting Alexandra Staropoli at staropoli@juvjustice.org.