Racial and ethnic disparities persist

Monday, 16 October 2017

By Josh Rovner

As 1995 drew to a close, the National Review published a piece from John DiLulio, The Coming of the Super-Predators, warning of a “demographic crime bomb.” It’s breathtaking how wrong he was.

The next year, juvenile arrest rates indeed hit their all-time high. They’ve been dropping ever since. The 2015 juvenile arrest rate is down 68 percent from the moment that we were told things were about to get much, much worse.


This decline rippled through the juvenile justice system. Juvenile incarceration has fallen 56 percent since 2000. On a typical day in 2015, there were 48,043 young people in America’s detention centers, its boot camps and wilderness centers, its long-term secure confinement facilities – in English, its juvenile jails and juvenile prisons.

Inherent in DiLulio’s framing of the “super-predator” threat was a racial narrative that young men of color were more dangerous than ever. Through the turn of the century, there were roughly as many Africans American and white youth in juvenile facilities even though there were five times as many white youth nationwide.

That disparity was never built around differences in behavior. Though self-reported sources such the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (run by the CDC) find modest differences in the kinds of behaviors that can get a teenager into trouble with the law (such as fighting, weapons possession and drug use) data on arrests show that youth of color are vastly more likely to be arrested for those behaviors.

It’s telling to look at the lowest level of offending to see how this plays out. Loitering and curfew violations rarely land a teenager behind bars, but black youth are more than three times as likely to be arrested for them. Does anyone believe the arrest data is a reflection of behavior?

It’s far more likely that the disparities in juvenile justice reflect the choices of adults, not the behaviors of teenagers. Unless one believes that black teenagers stay out late three times as often as white teenagers, something important is going on here.

Returning to incarceration, the disparity has only grown worse.

For The Sentencing Project, I looked at youth incarceration this century and found that African American youth, who were roughly four times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated in 2001, are now five times as likely. This isn’t an isolated problem: the disparity grew in 37 states and only declined in 13. Hawaii is the only state where black youth are less likely to be incarcerated than are white youth. Native youth are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth are, and Latino youth are 65 percent more likely.

Neither the existence of these disparities nor their growth should be ignored. Robust data collection at each point of contact with the justice system can point to the drivers of disparity, but it cannot remedy disparity.

We should celebrate the declines in incarceration among youth of all races and ethnicities. The virtuous cycle of fewer kids in confinement has been good for kids and good for public safety. But let’s not overlook the way these changes aren’t benefiting all our kids in the same way.

Josh Rovner is the Juvenile Justice Advocacy Associate at The Sentencing Project, an organization that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

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