Kansas Assesses Disproportionate Minority Contact in Juvenile Justice System

Data accumulated over a two year period revealed interesting trends in minority youth contact with law enforcement and in the detention of juveniles in Kansas – data that researchers are sharing with the general population across Kansas with the goal to “change the mentality of the system.”
That challenge, issued by former state Representative Melody McCray-Miller of Wichita, came at one of a series of community forums held to share the preliminary findings of researchers from Nebraska who compiled the Kansas State Disproportionate Minority Assessment.
Dr. Elizabeth Neeley (pictured left), director of the Nebraska Minority Justice Committee, and Dr. Mitch Herian of the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, are traveling across Kansas to educate on the disparities in how minority youth are represented in the state’s juvenile justice system.
Of Kansans ages 10-17 who are considered “at risk,” African-Americans experience much higher arrest rates, and African-Americans and Hispanics are both significantly over-represented in detention facilities. The goal of this study, Neeley said, is to identify trends and then seek solutions to preventable problems.

“This data represents people you and I know,” said McCray-Miller (pictured right), an African-American who served in the Kansas Legislature for eight years. “This is not new for us. How do we change now what has been going on for so long?”
Neeley suggested that the most obvious place to start would be addressing why more African-American and Hispanic youth return to detention for technical violations and on warrants than do their counterparts.
Based on Kansas Bureau of Investigation data accumulated in 2010 and 2011, 36.6% of Hispanics who returned to juvenile lockup did so due to a technical violation such as failure to appear for a court date. That number was much higher than African-Americans (28.5%) and whites (26.1%).
Blacks who returned to detention did so at an 18.2% rate for warrants, nearly 4% higher than whites and Hispanics.
A revelation of the data Neeley particularly stressed was that while those minorities make up a disproportionate segment of juvenile offenders, they do not re-enter the system for new crimes at a different rate than do whites.
In fact, white youths are more likely to return to juvenile detention for committing new offenses (39.1%) than are African-Americans (37.5%) and Hispanics (33.7%)
“Looking deeper into how communities treat technical violations and warrants might reveal something that’s going on that doesn’t need to be,” said Neeley. “Youth who are returning because they missed a court date or committing some minor violation of the terms of their supervision, there might be something we’re just not doing right. Is it a communication issue, or an economic issue that’s causing these violations?”
Neeley used as an illustration an effort made in Nebraska to reduce the high number of minority “failure to appear in court” incidences by sending out bilingual reminder postcards. She said the resulting reduction in violations was significant – about 3.5% – which could save the state of Nebraska thousands of dollars a year.
The study, conducted by the Nebraska company Objective Advantage, was commissioned by the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority (JJA) as part of a federal push since 1988 to address disproportionate confinement of minorities. The federal emphasis has since been expanded to cover “contact” with police.
JJA and the Kansas Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (KAG) decided to take the most recent findings to the people.
“We could have just given this data to researches and just had dry numbers to work with,” said Randy Bowman, JJA’s director of the Division of Community Based Services. “However, we wanted to not just have a report, but to let the people of Kansas hear it presented and to react to it and have input. After all, these issues won’t be solved at JJA. The individuals in the communities across the state will be the ones who make these changes.”
“I feel like I’ve been in this meeting before,” said an elderly member of the audience when Herian and Neeley opened the program to public comments. “We were having this same conversation in the 70s and 80s. What can we expect from this study, other than just another committee that won’t make a difference in the problem?”
Neeley responded that such a detailed statistical look at the issues has never been done before. She said that with the effective use of fact-driven data and numbers, rather than anecdotal evidence, there would be a better chance to make policy changes at all levels.

Todd Fertig is Publications Writer for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Updated: January 16 2013