Tag Archive for racism

Disproportionate Minority Contact and the Slippery Slope

An attempt at a discrimination graphic.

An attempt at a discrimination graphic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

African-American youth make up an absurd and out-of-proportion percentage of our prison population. The technical term is DMC – disproportionate minority contact.

Leah Varjacques of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange gives us a breakdown of the disturbing percentages.

Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.

A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.

As with so many other problems with modern American juvenile justice, we can find the roots of the issue are not merely based in poverty and lack of education, but also in the hysteria of the late 1980s.

The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.

As it is, about 250 youth are locked up in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Roughly 80 percent of that population is black – and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.

Drugs, neglect, mental illness and other factors are often rightly invoked when looking at juvenile crime, but one factor beginning to get attention is the role of policing in the equation.

“Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?”

Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.

“It’s not necessarily true,” she said, “that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you’re more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race.”

It creates a self-perpetuating cycle. As more youth are rolled through the mill of incarceration the pressure toward recidivism increases. In a recession like the current one jobs are scare enough without having to overcome a recorded juvenile offense. Not only that, but the initial “offenses” are often accused as simply being a way to get the kids “into the system.”

Many neighborhoods are starting to learn that community- and rehabilitation-based efforts can help short circuit this cycle of offense and recidivism.

In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Jamaica and South Bronx, the New York Department of Probation is collaborating with residents, businesses and organizations in what is called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.

This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.

This is where the economic refrain once more enters the picture. Juvenile justice and racial disparity are hardly “sexy” topics in budget meetings, particularly as there is little immediate gratification in either issue.

As a result efforts like the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) are seeing their resources slashed despite solid track records.

However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.

“Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”

Chambers is 100% correct in his concern. Without motivation to pursue the harder, yet more effective the easier road will often be taken. Most times this means incarceration that does little beyond providing a graduate course in criminal behavior at our society’s long-term expense.

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Racism in Memphis: Shelby County Juvenile System on the Hot Seat

Say No To Racism Vector StickerThe Memphis’ juvenile jail has been found decidedly wanting in a recent federal investigation.  According to it’s findings, there have been problems at the Shelby County Juvenile Court for years, mainly concerned with overly harsh discipline, inadequate protection of the incarcerated, and a strong dose of racism in the way that the inmates are treated. 

Thomas Perez, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, reported Thursday that both his attorneys and outside consultants found “systemic civil-rights violations as well as patterns of discrimination against black youths, who are more likely to be detained, to receive tougher punishments and to end up in the adult system.”

Beth Warren at The Commercial Appeal gives us a bit more detail on the DOJ findings:

Detention officers have used restraint chairs to strap down juveniles and pressure-point control tactics, such as bending a youth’s wrist backward to induce pain, according to a three-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Both, as practiced in Memphis, are unconstitutional, according to the report by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

The report also found dangers in the physical layout of the jail, such as its two-level design with a balcony.

‘There is no systematic suicide-proofing of the building, no education to detention staff regarding necessary precautions and no plans to correct these risks,’ according to the report.

These issues are of grave concern, but even worse is the widespread racism endemic in the justice system. Unlike the situation inside the facility, the racist component begins on the streets. Just look at the arrest findings (via WREG TV, Memphis)

Black juveniles who were arrested in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County were twice as likely as whites to be detained in jail and twice as likely to be recommended for transfer to adult court, where a conviction generally brings harsher punishment, Perez said.

As is established in numerous reports over recent years, when you put juveniles into adult facilities the recidivism rate spikes. In other words, a much larger percentage of them are arrested again after release. The simple fact is that placing youth in facilities with adult offenders creates a training ground for criminals.

Perez has publicly stated that the goal is not to place blame, but to find a way to fix the problem. We will be keeping an eye on Shelby County and will let you know how well he does.

Image by Vector Portal, used under its Creative Commons license

DOJ Increases Juvenile Justice Oversight: Meridian, MS in the Crosshairs

Mississippi State Capitol

Mississippi State Capitol with Confederate Flag

I’m from the South so when I think of Meridian, MS the first thing that comes to mind is the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed that year by white supremacists. It was a major rallying point for the civil rights struggles of the period.

Forty-seven years later the Department of Justice has Meridian in it’s sights because of the alleged targeting of black students by both law enforcement and school officials. It would seem that race is still a major issue, a fact unsurprising to those of us who have visited the town.

Jess Bravin, blogger for the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, takes look at some of the details:

The department is investigating whether city and county authorities have a “pattern or practice” of violating the youths’ constitutional rights, specifically the 14thAmendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection of the law, and the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Department officials said the allegations involve a ‘very tight relationship’ between the schools and the juvenile court that works to put black students under law enforcement supervision. Black students cited ‘for very minor infractions end up in front of a juvenile judge,’ who then sentences them to probation contingent on compliance with school rules, an official said. That way, ‘kids who’ve been out of school uniform by wearing the wrong color jacket or shirt’ can be sent to juvenile hall for a probation violation. White students allegedly are treated more leniently for similar behavior, officials said.

Unequal enforcement with a core of racial bias is a far too familiar story in the Deep South. Whether this proves to be the case with the current state of affairs in Meridian or not the city’s past history engenders a highly critical initial attitude.

This investigation is the Civil Rights Division’s second ever into juvenile justice, and officials have stated that others will probably be following close to it’s heels.

Braven notes that the invesitagtion is proceeding under the 14th Amendment. That’s the amendment that authorizes the feds to stop states from violating individual constitutional rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 specifically prohibit juvenile justice agencies from violating young people’s constitutional rights and codify the Justice Department’s enforcement authority in these cases.

Civil Rights Division chief, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez weighed in on the subject in no uncertain terms:

‘The juvenile justice system should not serve as a stop on the way to the adult prison system,’ Mr. Perez said. ‘This is why the department is committed to investigating Meridian schools for allegations that children are being severely punished for the most minor infractions of school rules. This would be an abuse of the justice system and clearly unconstitutional.’

Not only is it unconstitutional, but it is also a clear recipe for recidivism. If the allegations are correct Meridian is doing exactly what it needs to do in order to create hardened criminals rather than rehabilitated members of society. Add in the racial angle and this could be an explosive investigation.

We will be monitoring the investigation and report back when there is further news.

Image Source: Ken Lund on Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license