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Youth justice not colorblind, report says

Updated:
Minorities found more likely to be prosecuted and jailed

WASHINGTON - Black youths are six times more likely to be locked up than white peers when they are charged with similar crimes and when neither have prior records, according to a new civil-rights report.

The report, released Tuesday, contends that racial bias exists at every step of the juvenile-justice process. That creates a "cumulative disadvantage" for black and Hispanic youth, civil-rights leaders and youth advocates said Tuesday as they released the report by the Youth Law Center. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice think tank, did the research.

Minority youths are more likely than white youths who commit comparable crimes to be referred to juvenile court, be detained, face trial as adults, and be jailed with adults, the report said.

"It is astounding our nation can tolerate such gross inequality," said William Spriggs, director of research and public policy for the Urban League. "We cannot have a justice system that works this way."

Critics say the numbers could mean simply that black teens and children are committing more crimes or more-serious crimes. Researchers admit determining that is "much more complicated," but they maintained that many policies discriminate against low-income youth - who are overwhelmingly minorities, from single-parent homes or in foster care.

The report comes at a time when high-profile violence in schools and among youths is driving harsher juvenile punishment. At the same time, the rate of crime by young people has decreased since 1992.

Since 1992, 47 states have expanded laws to punish more juveniles as adults for murder, drug crimes, weapons possession and burglary. The Youth Law Center report calls for states to stop incarcerating young people with adults, noting that three in four youths imprisoned with adults are minorities.

"We're taking youngsters, children, and putting them in the worst location," Mr. Spriggs said. "It reverses a long trend in American policy not to have children imprisoned with hardened adult criminals."

State, federal data

Researchers used data from state and federal arrest records, juvenile court actions, detention, waivers to adult court and incarceration.

They found, for example, that black youths are 15 percent of the population younger than 18, but they make up one-third of youths referred to, formally processed by and convicted in juvenile court.

Blacks also account for 40 percent of the youths sent to adult courts and 58 percent of the youths sent to adult prison, said the report, titled "And Justice For Some." The Urban League and other civil-rights groups joined in its release.

Figures for Hispanic youths may be understated because most state court and prison records designate them as white, said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Systemic problem?

The groups nonetheless praised the comprehensive report - which followed several recent juvenile-justice studies - as evidence of something they have long suspected: Minority youths are victims of racial bias built into the justice system.

Even when types of crime were considered, minorities were more likely to go to jail or prison. Among youths with no prior records arrested for violent crimes, including murder, rape and robbery, 137 out of every 100,000 blacks were incarcerated, compared with 15 out of every 100,000 whites.

For drug offenses, which can carry a wide range of penalties, the number was 48 for black youths and one out of 100,000 for whites.

"Obviously racial profiling, targeting patrols in certain low-income neighborhoods and racial bias within the justice system contributes significantly to the stark disparities confirmed in this report," said Hilary O. Shelton, Washington bureau director for the NAACP.

The groups said Congress should give the Justice Department at least $100 million to study and fix racial disparities. It should also keep requiring states that get federal juvenile-justice grants to address the issue, said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees most juvenile-justice laws and programs.

That requirement is missing from a Senate version of the juvenile-justice bill held up by gun-control disputes, Mr. Scott said.
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