Report Highlights Racial Disparities in California's Juvenile Justice System

A recent report by the W. Haywood Burns Institute indicates that while California’s current corrections policies appear to be race-neutral, data shows that many young people of color are being incarcerated at higher rates than white youth for non-criminal acts rather than being treated for mental health and behavioral health needs. The report, titled “Non-Judicial Drivers into the Juvenile Justice System for Youth of Color,” highlights multiple studies that point to the same conclusion:

“Using locked cells to change the behaviors of teenagers is ineffective, expensive, and more likely to increase crime.”

The Burns Institute highlights the “non-judicial drivers” that result in high rates of incarceration among youth of color. An example of a non-judicial driver is school referrals for disorderly conduct accounting for 40 percent of annual juvenile arrests in California. The authors also highlight cases where low-risk youth with high mental health needs are placed in long-term detention with no treatment of the underlying trauma that is contributing to their delinquent behavior.

In their data analysis, the Burns Institute found that white youth are more likely to be diverted away from formal court processing than youth of color. Similar racial disparities exist with deeper involvement for youth of color in the California justice system. From the report:

“Also, youth of color comprise almost 90 percent of the cases transferred from juvenile to adult court even though they represent only 75 percent of the juvenile justice population. Once transferred to adult court, African-American youth in California receive a sentence of life without parole 18 times more often than White youth."

The report concludes that, “The racial and ethnic inequities present in our current justice system create the perception that incarceration is the most appropriate option for black and brown people with high needs, such as mental illness, but low risk for public safety.” Burns Institute finds that incarceration is increasingly being used as an “instrument of social control” and makes a negligible impact on changing delinquent behaviors. Rather, incarcerating juveniles is regularly found to increase harm, “piles trauma on top of trauma” for youth offenders, increases the chances for re-arrest upon release, and is enormously expensive to California taxpayers.
The Burns Institute calls for a variety of changes in California’s juvenile justice systems ranging from retraining staff for trauma-informed interventions, taking family history into account when determining rehabilitation resources, developing culturally competent programming, and enhancing the use of community alternatives to incarceration for those youth with high needs but who pose a moderate risk to public safety. CJCJ recognizes these are all important components of a 21st century juvenile justice system.
This report sheds light on an uncomfortable topic in discussions about California’s justice system: Not only are California’s youth experiencing “justice by geography” as CJCJ’s extensive studies have found, but also “justice by skin color”.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice.

Brian Heller de Leon is the Policy and Government Outreach Coordinator for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He has a background in community organizing, police-community relations and the implementation of national best-practice strategies for youth and gang violence reduction.

*Photo at top by Flickr User U.S. Marshall Service


Updated: February 08 2018