Decreasing the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system is one of four core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The others are eliminating status offenders from being held in detention, protecting juveniles from adults by sight and sound separation when juveniles are held in facilities for adults, and detaining only those who present a threat to public safety or themselves.
As juvenile justice agencies wrestle with how to decrease the overrepresentation of youth of color, a phenomenon that frequently emerges is that even though the number of arrests and bookings into juvenile hall may decrease, youth of color either maintain or increase their level of overrepresentation. This occurs despite the use of objective screening tools, cultural awareness training, police booking protocols, alternatives to detention, and other best practices. It is one of the truly vexing issues in juvenile justice reform.
The difficulty in decreasing the overrepresentation of youth of color led me to re-examine the literature on addressing racial and ethnic disparities to understand why decreasing racial disparities was so difficult to accomplish and to learn the practices of those who were successful. I felt encouraged by reading the work of jurisdictions that were able to decrease overrepresentation of youth of color, and was heartened by the extent to which they delved into issues that contributed to disproportionality for youth of color. The literature covered objective criteria for decision making, cultural competence of staff, alternatives to detention, the importance of data analysis and constant monitoring, collaboration and leadership. But I was particularly interested in the interface with community and its potential impact on racial disparities; additional information can be obtained from the references that are cited below.
Successful jurisdictions were particularly effective in their relationship to the community they served through in the following ways.
Involving community organizations and members in the process. For example, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, in their work in Seattle[i], included community organizations and members on their advisory board in addition to system representatives. In addition, the institute used a consensus model that required that the members work together, compromise, and develop workable solutions. In Santa Cruz, an association of Latino executive directors of community-based organizations and a strategic planning collaborative of Latino leaders collaborated with the probation department to lead a “powerful working group to address DMC.”[ii] Once very critical of the justice system, the community members became an active part of the solution. A similar situation occurred in Multnomah County that involved a diverse group of about 40 members who met regularly for a full year, seeking consensus and understanding.[iii]
Accommodating community needs. Laying the groundwork for co-operative relationships between the families of young offenders and the probation department is key to maximizing a positive outcome for the youth and decreasing overrepresentation of youth of color. Oftentimes ethnic, socio-economic, or language differences can aggravate the situation with negative consequences for the youth. Santa Cruz developed family conferencing and parental outreach programs as well as information sessions and written materials. They surveyed families and worked with parent advocates to identify barriers. From this information, the tone of communications was changed and the hours of operation shifted to include evenings and weekends, along with other changes in practice that were conducive to understanding, communication, and gradual building of trust.
Researching comprehensive information about youth to provide context, strengths, and community connection as well as the usual information provided the court. The W. Hayward Burns Institute conducted a community mapping process in neighborhoods that contributed to juvenile detention. Youth were hired to identify their communities’ strengths and deficits and make recommendations for improvement.[iv] Multnomah County hired four half-time trial assistants to help attorneys improve the pretrial placement planning for juveniles. Among the responsibilities of the assistants was to help identify strengths and resources the youth had in the community and possible appropriate community-based programs. The trial assistants enabled the defense attorney to have access to information that the prosecutor and probation already possessed and significantly increased the use of alternatives for youth who otherwise faced secure detention.[v]
The lessons learned by these jurisdictions are that decreasing racial disparities “must be an express goal of reform, and not expected as a by-product of overall reforms” and that “reducing disproportionate confinement of minorities is hard work, but it is just work. It can be done, and the success is worth the investment.”[vi]
[i] Building Blocks for Youth. (2005). Reducing Disproportionate Minority Confinement in Seattle: The W. Haywood Burns Institute Approach in No Turning Back, pp. 17-21.
[ii] Building Blocks for Youth. (2005). Promising Approaches to Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities Affecting Youth of Color in the Justice System in No Turning Back, pp. 11-12.
[iii] Building Blocks for Youth. (2005). Promising Approaches to Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities Affecting Youth of Color in the Justice System in No Turning Back, p. 12.
[iv] Building Blocks for Youth. (2005). Reducing Disproportionate Minority Confinement in Seattle: The W. Haywood Burns Institute Approach in No Turning Back, pp. 17-21.
[v] Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (2002). Reducing Disproportionate Minority Confinement: The Multnomah County Oregon Success Story and Its Implications. San Francisco, CA: CJCJ.
[vi] Building Blocks for Youth. (2005). Promising Approaches to Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities Affecting Youth of Color in the Justice System in No Turning Back, p. 15.