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Racial, Ethnic Disparities Stubbornly Endure in Juvenile Justice System, Expert Says

By Daryl Khan
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange


BOSTON — The video should not have come as a shock to this audience. If anyone is sensitive to the subject matter — how race and racial bias subtly and expressly influence people’s decision-making — it is this group of probation officers, administrators and experts gathered at a symposium on probation reform hosted by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps in Boston. They had gathered to listen to a workshop wonkily entitled: “Balancing the Scales: Effective Strategies for Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System.”

hub_arrow_2-01These are people who are familiar with the persistent problem of having black youth in their facilities at a rate far out of whack with the population. They are the ones who obsess over data, examining every point of contact to identify and ferret examples of implicit bias.


Tiana Davis

But despite that familiarity with the problems and ways to fix it, the almost comically obvious videothat Tiana Davis, the policy director for equity and justice at the Center of Law and Children’s Policy, plays from a popular television show still disturbs the 20 or so juvenile justice professionals in the room.

It’s from “What Would You Do?” A young, casually dressed white guy — maybe in his late teens or early 20s — is trying to cut the lock on a bike in a park. He’s an actor. The show’s hidden cameras capture the made-for-TV social experiment that follows.

First the actor uses a hammer, then a saw to try to break through the chain lock until he graduates to an industrial-strength bolt cutter. The host’s voice pipes up: “You see this and you wonder did he lose his keys or is he blatantly trying to steal this bike?”

What follows is a series of half-hearted attempts from white passers-by to inquire about what the young man is up to. At one point someone asks point-blank if the locked bike is his. In an hour more than 100 people pass by, including a black family, but aside from some questioning they do nothing to stop the theft. Only an elderly white couple, George and Arlene, confront the young man.

“I remember thinking young white men don’t carry burglary tools,” says one black woman when she is interviewed and made aware of the show’s participation in the stunt.

And then the show’s producers replace the white actor with a black one, roughly the same age, same clothes, same tools grinding away at the bike’s chain. This time the reaction is instant and almost violently confrontational. Within minutes the young black man is surrounded by a crowd of white vigilantes demanding that someone call the police. The crowd turns angry; a woman snaps pictures of the young black man.

“Got you,” she says with gleeful spite.


Lisa Hill

As she watches this scene unfold during the workshop, Lisa Hill, who is superintendent of a juvenile facility in Oakland, California, is clearly troubled by the scene. Her jaw clenches, her eyebrows furrow, she shakes her head almost imperceptibly with disgust.

At the end of the scene Davis asks for people’s response. Many attendees express their displeasure with how this scenario played out, but Hill’s response is almost visceral.

“For me I was feeling a little anxious,” Hill said. “I was trying to avoid being angry about that because I know that that’s real. I’ve never experienced [it] to that degree because I have never stolen a bike, but I’ve been followed around in the store.”

The scene was also an example of how white youth sometimes do not get needed attention from the system, she said. Consider, she pointed out, here is a young man who is out in broad daylight, with a sack full of tools, stealing a bike. At the very least someone should have called authorities so he could get an evaluation to see if he had mental or emotional problems.

“So I was really angry watching that,” Hill said.

How DMC hurts juvenile justice system

Davis cribbed notes from two much more in-depth publications put out by her organization — the Practice Manual and the Graduated Responses Toolkit — to lay out the scope of the problem of “disproportionate minority contact” and the ways juvenile justice systems can root it out and prevent it. Her organization’s goal is to “enhance equity” in the juvenile justice system.

“This isn’t about changing the social conditions,” she said, such as curing poverty, or changing the youth or the families. “It is targeted to the juvenile justice system itself.”

First she asked a simple question: Why is it important to you?

“Fairness is a fundamental value in our society, and it’s important in this juvenile justice system. Unfairness creates ineffectiveness,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are fairly treating youth that are coming into the system, and that we’re being effective,

This is not just a moral imperative, but a practical one for professionals working in the system, Davis said.

“We know from the research that youth are not likely to engage in the system that they perceive as unfair,” she said. “If there’s a perception of unfairness then you’re going to have an even greater challenge at being effective with the young people that you are working with in the system.”

After laying out the various technical and utilitarian reasons that these racial biases and disproportional outcomes undermine the system, Davis said that ultimately: “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Davis described what she called the three widely identified key indicators of how race corrupts the juvenile justice system. First there is overrepresentation of youth of color in the system. When youth of color are held in facilities in greater percentages than their population in the community, then you have a textbook example of overrepresentation.

Next she identified disparate treatment of youth of color. She said they — more than their white counterparts — tend to receive harsher, more punitive treatment. As illustrated starkly by the bike stealing video: two kids, same age, same offense, but with different skin color and experiencing sharply different outcomes.

And the final indicator, she said, is how once a youth of color enters the system he moves deeper into the system. She said too often youth of color will descend into the deep end of the system while their white counterparts — through diversion or lighter sentencing — end up in the shallower end.

The data, Davis said, bear this out. Researchers at the Center for Law were studying one of its jurisdictions when they made a troubling discovery. They found the number one reason why youth of color were in secure detention facilities was because they had violated court orders for truancy proceedings.

“Here you have one of the most intensive interventions you can have in the juvenile justice system — removing them from their communities, from their families, putting them into a locked facility — because they missed school,” Davis said. “We consider that an abuse in many ways of that type of intervention of incarceration, and certainly that is unnecessary. Completely off the wall.”

Davis projected a chart illustrating the numerous points where a youth could end up in the shallow end or the deep end of the system at every stage in the process. For example, if there’s an arrest the deep end of the system is law enforcement and probation, the shallow end is diversion or community service. In nearly every stage of process, she said, youth of color are treated more harshly than white youth.

How to stop disparities

Paul Daniels, the court manager for King County, which covers Seattle, said his department has started a “decision point framework” based on a similar model.

“We’ve basically looked at every decision point from first law enforcement contact to all the way up to including probation to when a decision is made. We’ve done all we can to identify … how and why that decision is being made,” said Daniels, who attended the workshop. “We’ve looked at the police contact, the referral to the prosecution attorney, diversion. What are the racial and ethnic breakdowns? We’re trying to get to the point where kids are treated equally and no one is over-represented. That’s one of our number one priorities in King County.”

Davis laid out five approaches to rolling back racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. She encouraged collaboration between agencies within the system, but also with systems that touch juvenile justice such as schools, child welfare and mental health institutions.

She stressed a commitment to learning how to use sound data and what it can tell us to drive change. Sometimes that data can yield counterintuitive results, she said.


John Ryals Jr., Evaluation/Treatment Supervisor,

Jefferson Parish Department of Juvenile Services

For example, despite the popular perception that law enforcement is singling out black youths, 30 percent of youth arrests in New Orleans were triggered by calls coming from their community, said John Ryals, evaluation/treatment supervisor of Jefferson Parish (Louisiana) Department of Juvenile Services. He was speaking at another workshop.

When they dug into the data, they found that only 10 percent of the youth entering the system were there as a result of a police officer on patrol making a stop and an arrest, he said.

Ryals said this information allowed his boss Roy Juncker, director of the Department of Juvenile Services, to concentrate on outreach and developing other programs in the community to figure out how to remedy the situation there instead of devoting all the resources to law enforcement.

“The data allows us to focus all of our efforts on creating better outcomes for the kids, which is at the end of the day what we all want,” Ryals said.

It’s crucial to have policies and practices based on objective criteria, Davis said. When professionals go with their gut, he or she is most likely to let bias sneak into the decision-making process.

Finally, she pointed to “culturally responsive programs” that engage communities of color in new ways that allow the system to be able to better serve them. “They’re greater stakeholders in this, even more than us,” she said. “This is their lives.”

She said even if you do intercede on behalf of a youth of color and divert him from going into the “deep end” of the system it’s of no use if they end up in a program that doesn’t work for them.

“If the program they go to doesn’t serve them you might as well not have not sent them there at all,” she said.

‘The numbers don’t change’

In an interview after the workshop, Hill said she learned an uncomfortable secret after her daughter started working in a retail store: Security guards told her that it was common practice for employees at stores to come and politely ask people they suspected of shoplifting: Can I help you with anything? When Hill learned that tidbit it struck her how many times over the years she was approached while she was shopping and asked that very thing.

“Maybe I was naive,” she said. “Like I said, I never stole a bike, but I’ve gone shopping.”

Her own experience is an example, Hill said, of the deeper, cultural battle over race that needs to be won to really curb the persistence of disproportionate outcomes along racial and ethnic lines in the juvenile justice system.

More than a decade ago, she led workshops and presentations like the one she had just sat through, she said. Back then she too cautioned juvenile justice professionals against implicit bias, and encouraged them to let objective criteria guide their decision-making instead of their gut. But a decade later the problem still plagues juvenile justice systems across the country.

“We called it something different back then but the proposals were the same. Unfortunately the numbers don’t change,” she said. “That video reveals where we are. I feel like there is a certain level of racism that goes along with those numbers.”

Hill noted how the black family from the video thought the white thief was an employee.

“They’ve been so negatively affected by the bias that they see their own faces as criminal,” she said. “They couldn’t see that white young man as a criminal, even when it’s right there in your face.”

She used to attend citywide meetings to talk about the subject with other stakeholders, Hill said. One conversation stands out still. She was at a pre-meeting with the presiding judge in the district. She asked the judge to consider a hypothetical. What if out of 25 people on the docket on a given day, 20 were in wheelchairs?

“You’re going to say to yourself, wow, there must be something going on with kids in wheelchairs. I need to look into this and figure out what’s going on,” Hill said. “Why don’t black youth get the same attention? Why doesn’t anyone try to figure out what is going on?”
The judge, Hill said, just looked at her. She didn’t have an answer.

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