Juvenile Injustice

by Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Professor, at Virginia Tech

The Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech, which I direct, recently held its seventh annual Combating Racial Injustice Workshop. We examined one of the continuing areas of injustice—the so-called juvenile justice system.

Despite a drop in overall arrest rates nationally, black youth are still twice as likely to be arrested as white youth. And as of 2013, black juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed as white juveniles.

Concerning status offenses—actions not illegal for adults: In 2011, black youth across the United States were over two and one-half times more likely to be arrested for violating curfew laws than white youth. Black youth face racial discrimination at every step of the juvenile justice system.

Let’s look at the stages of the juvenile justice system. They differ from the adult system.

First, a juvenile gets to juvenile court through an arrest by a police officer or a referral by some other agency, for example, a school. Some youth are diverted from formal processing by the juvenile court and handled without the filing formal charges.

Youth not diverted may be placed in a secure detention facility until their court hearing. The next step involves the determination of whether the youth is formally charged or whether the case is handled informally.

Formal hearings result in delinquency findings (called guilty or not guilty in the adult court).

If the youth is found delinquent (guilty), he or she may receive probation, confinement in a correctional facility for delinquent offenders, or transferred to adult court.

In Virginia, black juveniles are almost three times as likely as white youth to be referred to juvenile court.

• They are almost twice as likely to receive detention before their hearing.

• They are one-third more likely to be found delinquent.

• They are over twice as likely to be committed to a juvenile facility

• On the other hand, they are less likely to have positive outcomes in the courts. For example, they are nearly 30 percent less likely to have their cases diverted from the court, and they are similarly less likely to get probation as a disposition of their case.

Prosecutors and state laws rather than judges control about 85 percent of the decisions to prosecute juveniles as adults. Data show that their decisions and these laws are being applied in discriminatory ways. A study of 18 key jurisdictions in the country found that 82 percent of cases filed in adult court involved minority youth, with African American males constituting over half of these.

Laws are getting harsher despite declining youth crime, and youth of color are bearing the brunt. In 1999 the juvenile murder rate was the lowest in recorded history and violent crime was at a decade low. Nevertheless, almost every state has made it easier to prosecute youth as adults and to impose harsher penalties. The consequences are being imposed on youth of color more often than whites, even when they commit the same offenses.

Some policies worsen the racial disparities in the juvenile system. One problematic policy is that of making school discipline a law enforcement issue. Police presence in schools has led to the criminalization of ordinary adolescent misbehavior. Black students make up 16 percent of all public school students, but they are 31 percent of all school arrests.

The consequences of being in the juvenile justice system, especially in juvenile detention, are far-reaching. Youth who have been confined are at significant risk of not gaining the educational credentials they need to succeed as adults. They have difficulty obtaining sustained employment, and they are often re-arrested for lack of appropriate treatment. Black juveniles face these outcomes disproportionately because of racial discrimination in the juvenile justice system.