America’s juvenile justice system in black and white

When he was locked up in the Birmingham, Ala., jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Nowhere is this truer than in the stark racial disparities meted out by our nation’s juvenile justice system.

In December, the National Institute of Drug Abuse announced that drug use among teen-agers fell markedly over the last two years. Its “Monitoring the Future” survey of nearly 50,000 students showed double-digit declines in drug use between 2001 and 2003.

What were not highlighted in NIDA’s press release were the startling-and counterintuitive-racial disparities in self-reported drug use among teen-agers. According to the survey, black “seniors have consistently shown lower usage rates of most drugs, licit and illicit, than white seniors; this is also true at the lower-grade levels where few have dropped out of school.”

The survey found that white high school seniors used cocaine over the previous 30 days at six times the rate of black seniors and crack cocaine at three times the rate of blacks. The 2002 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a separate survey, reports that white youth are also 30 percent more likely to have sold drugs over the last year than black youth.

Meanwhile, although our nation’s two leading surveys show that white youth are substantially more likely to use and sell drugs than black youth, black teen-agers are exponentially more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white youth.

A report released in 2000 by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative found that black youth represented 39 percent of drug cases petitioned for adult court, but 63 percent of cases tried as adults for drug offenses. Of youth locked up in juvenile facilities for the first time for a drug offense, the admission rate for black youth was an astonishing 48 times that of white youth; the rate for Latinos was 13 times the rate of whites. In Chicago, 99 percent of the youth automatically tried as adults for drug crimes from 1999 to 2000 were black.

In the face of these startling statistics, some communities are taking action to reduce racial disparities in their juvenile justice systems, and are finding that they can have better public safety outcomes as well. Officials in Multnomah County, Ore., have worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the past decade to address the overrepresentation of youth of color in their detention center. They implemented objective risk screening criteria to separate youth who needed to be confined from those who didn’t, helping to eliminate subjective bias from that key decision. County officials also bolstered defense representation and created new detention alternatives in collaboration with community-based nonprofits.

The results have been impressive. Although youth of color were a third more likely to be detained as white youth in 1996, now youth of all races and ethnicities are detained in Multnomah County at virtually identical rates. The overall number of detained youth has dropped by 66 percent. Most important, youth crime in Multnomah is down 43 percent and youth re-arrests and failures to appear have also declined.

Efforts similar to Portland’s are now under way throughout the country. The minority youth population in detention in the Casey Foundation’s two other model sites-Santa Cruz, Calif., and Cook County, Ill.- dropped by 50 percent and 33 percent respectively from 1996 to 2000.

The foundation is helping juvenile justice officials in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, Idaho, Maryland, New Mexico, Washington and California to replicate their “Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.” Last year, the C. Haywood Burns Institute was founded specifically to reduce the overrepresentation of youth of color in their juvenile justice systems; they have already been invited to work with juvenile justice officials in 14 large urban counties throughout the country.

In 2002, the Justice Department reported that, if incarceration rates stay at current levels, nearly one in three black boys born in 2001 (today’s 3-year-olds) would go to prison at some time in their life; the figure for Latino boys was one in six.

While there is still obviously plenty of bad news about racial disparities in America’s justice system, policy-makers should look to the promising approaches emerging around the country to address what has become one of the most pressing civil rights issues of the young millennium.

Vincent Schiraldi is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services