Juvenile Justice and Race: An Uphill Climb to the Bottom

Blog by James Bell

I continue to be amazed at how many people continue to behave as though race and involvement with the criminal justice system are synonymous. Has it become an accepted fact of life in the United States that the machinery of justice applies almost solely to people of color? I shuddered to realize this once again while reading editorials about the Supreme Court’s deliberations regarding juveniles receiving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in the U.S., the only country that engages in this barbaric practice.

While I was heartened by the arguments proffered regarding brain development and laws that restrict children from voting, serving on juries, buying alcohol and cigarettes — something was missing. In most of the editorials in mainstream media, it was rare to find any analysis of race and how justice systems operate in neighborhoods made up mostly of people of color in poverty. In the alternative press, an AlterNet article mentioned an important fact: Black prisoners account for 84 percent of those in prison for life without the possibility of parole in Florida, the state with the most people expected to perish this way in prison. Nationally, black youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of white youths, according to Human Rights Watch. Amy Bach’s recent book, “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court,” further recounts such justice by geography and race.

As someone who works every day to prevent youth of color from being undeservedly trapped by the labyrinth that is today’s justice system, perplexed is an understatement to describe my feelings as reporters and commentators continue to accept the disproportionate impact of justice on communities of color. We must combat the normalization of this phenomenon. Why isn’t it a story that most black and brown youth are detained for low-level administrative violations rather than crimes that endanger public safety? Why isn’t there more media attention around the fact that youth of color are securely confined in numbers that cannot be accounted for by crime alone? Why is there not more scrutiny regarding biased decision-making that when examined with data shows that for the same offenses for which white youth are released, youth of color are detained?

These are tough questions to answer when one realizes that at the heart of such issues is yet another a conversation about race. The case of a 5-year-old black girl in Florida comes to mind, who in 2005 was handcuffed and arrested by three police officers after throwing a tantrum in class. The public response to the shocking tape of her arrest ranged from blame directed toward the police and the school principal – to blame directed at the child and her family. Many comments below the YouTube video of her arrest featured racist attacks. But other than legal action pursued by her family, public outcry was tempered.

When another little black girl, 6-year-old Desre’e Watson was arrested in her kindergarten class in Florida two years later for a similar classroom tantrum, she was booked in the Highland County jail and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. On the other hand, when Zachary Christie, a white 6-year-old, was suspended from first grade and faced 45 days in an alternative school for troublemakers for taking a combination knife/fork/spoon to school, the widespread public outrage that followed led the school board to change the penalty for all young students to a three to five day suspension.

Zachary’s punishment called into question harsh school “zero-tolerance” policies, and led to a change of policy in the local system. The cases of the two little black girls who became involved in the criminal justice system for throwing tantrums in kindergarten did not impact policy or practice.

In order to deconstruct who is detained and why in a local juvenile justice system, those who make such decisions — including schools, the police, juvenile court judges, and prosecutors — must have the courage to examine how their juvenile justice apparatus operates, and what impacts their decisions. Are their reactions to youth of color driven by fear, politics, anecdote and beliefs — or by data and informed analysis? We have found in our work that examining how decision-making points impact youth of color is an unnatural task for a local juvenile justice system to undertake. It is a shock to the institution. For that reason, there is an overall lack of accountability.

On any given day, more than 90,000 youth are in custody of the juvenile justice system. A majority of them are youth of color who are held for nonviolent offenses. For this, our society pays a high moral and financial price. A recently issued Justice Policy Institute report found that states spend approximately $5.7 billion each year imprisoning youth, although it has been shown that nonviolent youth can be supervised safely in the community with alternatives that cost substantially less than incarceration and that could lower recidivism by up to 22 percent. Studies show that incarcerated youth are less likely than those in alternative programs to graduate from high school, are more likely to be unemployed as adults, and are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as adults.

Tragic cases that receive widespread attention, such as the beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert in Chicago, are horrific, but also rare. While some youth involved in serious or violent crime should be detained for public safety, the more than two-thirds of detained youth are charged with property offenses, public order offenses, or status offenses (i.e. running away or breaking curfew). Why is this so? Simply put, as a society we do not demand nor expect excellence, fairness, rationality or accountability from our child-serving justice systems. This should no longer be acceptable. There is too much at stake for our democratic principles and our ability to compete in a global knowledge-based world.

I am no economist or futurist, but I know that as a country we are not well-served when we have so many uneducated youth of color lost in a juvenile justice apparatus that dictates when they should eat, shower and exercise — then released to the world without much hope for turning their lives around through higher education or work. We can do better. But in order to do so we must demand accountability from juvenile justice systems early and often.

Today, let us begin by eliminating life in prison without the possibility of parole for children who have not taken a life.