The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Chapter Five: Race and Juvenile Justice System

Criminal Justice Report Banner
Table of Contents
grey arrow Executive Summary
grey arrow Introduction
grey arrow Chapter One: Race and the Police
grey arrow Chapter Two: Race and Prosecutorial Discretion
grey arrow Chapter Three: Race, Sentencing and the "Tough Crime" Movement
grey arrow Chapter Four: Willful Judicial Blindness
grey arrow Chapter Five: Race and Juvenile Justice System
grey arrow Chapter Six: Consequences of Too Little Justice
grey arrow Chapter Seven: Recommendations
Chapter V

Race and Juvenile Justice System

The racial disparities that characterize criminal justice in America affect young people deeply, and cause minority youth to be over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system. Juvenile justice deserves separate consideration in this Report because it plays an especially destructive role in the lives of minority communities.

Juvenile justice was conceived as a way to intervene constructively in the lives of teenagers in order to steer them away from the adult criminal justice system. Juvenile courts were established throughout the United States in the early 1900’s based on the recognition that children are different than adults; while children may violate the law, they remain uniquely suited to rehabilitation. It has long been recognized as counterproductive to label children as criminals, because the description becomes self-fulfilling. But for many black and Hispanics children, juvenile justice serves as a feeder system into adult courts and prisons. The mindless cycle by which so many blacks and Hispanics are branded as criminals begins in the juvenile justice system.

Racially skewed juvenile justice outcomes have dire implications, because the whole point of the juvenile justice system is to head off adult criminality. For example, one pillar of the juvenile justice system is the segregation of children from adult prisoners. Placing more black and Hispanic teenagers in adult prisons where they will come into contact with career criminals serves to incubate another generation of black and Hispanic criminals.

In the last decade, juvenile justice policy has increasingly blurred the distinctions between children and adults. Many states and the federal government have adopted laws that permit, encourage, or require youthful offenders to be tried as adults and ultimately transferred into adult prison populations. This ongoing erosion of the juvenile justice system we have known for a century is disastrous for juvenile offenders in general, but minority youths suffer most from this policy shift because they already bear the brunt of racially skewed law enforcement.

For example, minority youths are disproportionately targeted for arrest in the war on drugs. In Baltimore, Maryland, 18 white youths and 86 black youths were arrested for selling drugs in 1980. One decade later, juvenile drug sale arrests had increased more than 100 percent overall, and the almost 5-to-1 racial disparity that existed a decade earlier had become a 100-to-1 disparity: white youths were arrested 13 times for selling drugs in 1990 – less than in 1980 – while black youths were arrested 1304 times, an 1400 percent increase from 1980.

These figures reflect the broader national experience: From 1986 to 1991, arrests of white juveniles for drug offenses decreased 34 percent, while arrests of minority juveniles increased 78 percent. All this despite data suggesting that drug use rates among white, black, and Hispanic youths are about the same, and that drug use has in fact been lower among black youths than white youths for many years. Similar disparities appear in relation to non-drug-related crimes. While a National Youth Survey found that the ratio of violent crimes committed by black and white male youths was approximately 3:2, the ratio of arrests for violent crimes between these two groups was approximately 4:1, according to data from the FBI. In California, from 1996-1998, Hispanic youth were more than twice as likely, and black youth more than six times as likely, to be arrested for a violent offense than white youth. In short, whatever the age of the offender, “black illegal activity is more likely to lead to attention by the criminal justice system.”

Over-representation of minority youths in the juvenile justice system increases after arrest. As a general matter, minority youths tend to be held at intake, detained prior to adjudication, have petitions filed, be adjudicated delinquent, and held in secure confinement facilities more frequently than their white counterparts. For example, in 1995, 15 percent of cases nationwide involving white juveniles resulted in detention, while 27 percent of cases involving black juveniles resulted in detention, even though whites comprised 52 percent, and blacks only 45 percent, of the entire juvenile caseload.

These conclusions based on national statistics were very recently reaffirmed in a report released by the Youth Law Center and prepared by researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The report found substantial over-representation of minorities at all stages of the juvenile justice system, and noted that three out of every four youths admitted to adult prisons were minorities, despite the fact that the majority of juvenile arrests involved whites.

The experiences of individual states are equally dismaying. Disproportionate confinement of young Hispanics has been documented in each of the four states with the largest Hispanic youth populations – Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California. In Ohio in 1996, minorities represented 43 percent of the juveniles held in secure facilities, despite representing only 14.3 percent of the overall state juvenile population. Similarly, in Texas in 1996, minority youths represented 80 percent of those juveniles held in secure facilities, while representing only 50 percent of the overall state juvenile population. A 1990 Florida study determined that “when juvenile offenders were alike in terms of age, gender, seriousness of the offense which promoted the current referral, and seriousness of their prior records, the probability of receiving the harshest disposition available at each of several processing stages was higher for minority youth than for white youth.”

Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American youths are far more likely to be transferred to adult courts, convicted in those courts, and incarcerated in youth or adult prison facilities than white youths. A recent study of Los Angeles County juvenile justice trends carried out by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is revealing. Under California law, an under-18 youth may be prosecuted either in juvenile court or adult court, may be sentenced either to a prison term in a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility, and then perhaps transferred to an adult facility at age 18, or given probation. The JPI study concluded that while minority youths are five times more likely than white youths to be transferred to a CYA facility by a juvenile court (a disturbing disparity in and of itself), they are 10 times more likely to be placed in CYA facilities by an adult criminal court. The study found that although minority youths comprised 75 percent of California’s juvenile justice population, they comprised almost 95 percent of all cases found “unfit” for juvenile court and transferred to adult court. Cases involving Hispanic youth alone accounted for 59 percent of the cases deemed “unfit” for juvenile court. By contrast, cases involving white juveniles, who make up 24 percent of California’s overall juvenile population, were transferred to adult court only five percent of the time. Black, Hispanic and Asian youths in California are six, 12, and three times more likely, respectively, to be transferred to adult court.

The disproportionate number of minority transfers to adult court cannot be explained by the commission of more, or more serious, crimes by minority youths. The JPI study found a 2.8-to-1 violent arrest ratio between minority and white youths – that is, for every white youth arrested for a felony, 2.8 minority youths were arrested. But after the felony arrest stage, the likelihood of minority youths being transferred to adult court as compared to white youths increased to 6.2-to-1. The ratio of adult court prison sentences increased even further: Minority youths arrested for violent crimes were seven times more likely overall to receive prison sentences from adult courts than white youths arrested for similar crimes. The numbers for black youth were particularly stark. As compared to a white youth who committed a violent crime, a black youth was 18.4 times more likely to be sentenced to prison by an adult court (Hispanics were 7.3 times more likely, and Asian-Americans 4.5 times more likely, than whites to be sentenced to a CYA facility by an adult court). The JPI report concludes that “the discriminatory treatment of minority youth arrestees accumulates within the justice system and accelerates measurably if the youth is transferred to adult court.”

The increasingly severe treatment of minority youths in the California justice system has dramatically changed the composition of the State juvenile prison population. Whereas white youths made up 30 percent of the CYA population in 1980, in 1998, they comprised 14 percent. In the next several years, Hispanic youths are expected to comprise 65 percent of the CYA population.

The trend is continuing in California. On March 7, 2000, that state’s voters approved Proposition 21, the “Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act,” a measure first proposed during his term of office by former Republican Governor Pete Wilson and supported by current Democratic Governor Gray Davis. Proposition 21 permits prosecutors to charge youthful offenders as adults without obtaining the approval of a juvenile court judge, and imposes longer, sometimes mandatory, sentences on a broader range of crimes committed by juveniles. Membership in a gang, for example, carries with it a mandatory 6-month term. At the same time, Proposition 21 eliminates certain early intervention programs.

The consequences of Proposition 21 are staggering. California taxpayers have voted to spend an additional $1 billion for prison construction at a moment when youth violence is declining throughout the state. They have also voted to incarcerate 15 and 16 year olds in adult prison, despite the fact that teenagers incarcerated in adult facilities are five times as likely to be raped, twice as likely to be beaten, and eight times as likely to commit suicide as adults in those facilities. Given the demonstrable racial disparity in juvenile justice, there is little question that the impact of Proposition 21 will fall largely on minority youth.

Several national trends parallel the California experience: “Tough on crime” juvenile justice policies are in vogue, and minority youths are the primary targets of these policies.

First, the overall under-18 population in state prisons is increasing. In 1985, 3400 youths were admitted to state prisons; by 1997, the number was 7400, more than double the prior total. This increase was more pronounced than the increase in arrests during that time. For every 1,000 arrests for violent crimes by under-18’s, 33 youths were incarcerated in 1997, as compared to 18 in 1985.

Second, the number of cases transferred from juvenile courts to adult courts has increased 70 percent in a decade, from 7200 in 1985 to 12,300 in 1994. The prison terms served by these youths has also increased, from a mean minimum term in 1985 of 35 months to a mean minimum term in 1997 of 44 months. Contrary to contentions that this development reflects a surge of violent criminal activity by America’s youth, approximately two-thirds of the youths prosecuted in adult court in 1996 were charged with nonviolent offenses. Yet overall, in 1998, nearly 18,000 youths spent time in adult prisons, and approximately 20 percent of these youths were mixed in with the adult population.

Third, minority youths make up the majority of those youths in the state prison system. In 1997, Hispanic and black youths made up 73 percent of the overall under-18 state prison population, a 10 percent increase from 1985 figures.

Fourth, the disparity between the numbers of minority and white youths in state prisons is increasing, especially for drug offenses. In 1985, the number of black youths held in state prisons for drug offenses was 1.5 times greater than the number of white youths imprisoned for the same offenses. By 1997, the number of black juvenile drug offenders in state prisons was over 5.3 times greater than the number of imprisoned white juvenile drug offenders.

Finally, minority youths are involved in an increasing number of the cases transferred from juvenile to adult court: the number of cases involving white youths that were transferred from juvenile to adult courts increased approximately 50 percent between 1985-1994; transferred cases involving black youth increased almost 100 percent, and are now approximately half of all transferred cases, despite the much smaller percentage of black youth in the overall juvenile population. And cases involving black juveniles were almost twice as likely to be transferred to adult criminal court as cases involving white juveniles, principally because of the relatively large number of transferred (nonviolent) drug cases involving black juveniles.

Ill-conceived efforts to facilitate the transfer of juveniles into the adult justice system have not been limited to the state level. For the past several years, Congress has considered legislation that would permit U.S. Attorneys to prosecute youths as adults for certain crimes, require states to take the same approach with respect to their juvenile offenders, and end the mandate that states collect data bearing on racial disparities in their juvenile systems. If such legislation is enacted, the federal government will be able to claim shared responsibility for the transformation of our juvenile justice system into the breeding ground for a class of young, disaffected career criminals. This class will consist largely of minority youths, yet the federal legislation would discourage collection of information bearing on the racial disparities that characterize juvenile justice systems nationwide.

Federal policy toward juveniles already disproportionately impacts some minority groups. Because crimes committed on Indian reservations often fall within federal jurisdiction, Native American youths who engage in minor criminal conduct that ordinarily would be prosecuted in state court instead face federal prosecution and federal penalties that, as described, are often far harsher than those imposed in state court. For this reason, approximately 60 percent of youths in federal custody are Native American. Disabled children are also disadvantaged in the juvenile justice system because they may lose their statutory entitlement to individualized education programs upon being transferred to adult facilities.

Passage of the federal juvenile justice legislation currently under consideration will extend these disparities to other minority groups, and will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear of crime by minority youths will lead to policies that breed crime by minority youths, and that will justify even more aggressive efforts to bring minorities under criminal justice control. Meanwhile, efforts to examine the race-based disparities that pervade juvenile justice in America languish.

No Equal Justice at 145 (citing National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, Hobbling a Generation: Young African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System of America’s Cities: Baltimore, Maryland (September 1992)).

Id. (citing American Bar Association, The State of Criminal Justice (February 1993)).

“Why ‘Driving While Black’ Matters” at 295 and n. 132.

Race to Incarcerate at 163-165.

Mike Males & Dan Macallair, “The Color of Justice: An Analysis of Juvenile Adult Court Transfers in California,” Justice Policy Institute (February 2000) (The Color of Justice), pp. 3-4. Asian-Americans too were more likely to be arrested than whites for similar crimes. Id.

Race to Incarcerate at 165.

See Carl Pope, “Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System,” in Tonry & Hatlestad at 240-244 (surveying studies of race and the juvenile justice system and concluding that studies are “far more evident in the juvenile justice system than in the adult system”).

Andrew Blum, “Jail Time By the Book: Black Youths More Likely to Get Tough Sentences Than Whites, Study Shows,” American Bar Association Journal, May 1999, p. 18.

Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael Jones, “And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System” (April 2000) at 1, 3.

The Color of Justice at 2 (citing Donna Hamparian & Michael Leiber, Disproportionate Confinement of Minority Juveniles in Secure Facilities: 1996 National Report (Community Research Associates 1997) (“Hamparian & Leiber”), p.9).

Id (citing Hamparian and Leiber, at 9).

Id (citing Donna Bishop & Charles Frazier, “A Study of Race and Juvenile Processing in Florida,” Report Submitted to the Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission (1990)).

The Color of Justice at 3, 7.

Id. at 4-7.

Id. at 8.

Evelyn Nieves, “California Proposal Toughens Penalties for Young Criminals,” New York Times, March 6, 2000, pp. A1, A15 (quoting Kathryn Dresslar, senior policy advocate at the Children’s Advocacy Institute, University of California, San Diego).

Kevin J. Strom. “Profile of State Prisoners under Age 18, 1985-97,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (February 2000) (Strom), pp.1, 4-5. Many of these youthful offenders are disabled, with such conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, in Arizona, studies have identified 42 percent of all youthful offenders as disabled. Similar studies have revealed 60 percent of youthful offenders in Maine and Florida to be disabled. Peter E. Leone and Sheri Meisel, “Improving Education Services for Students in Detention and Confinement Facilities,” National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice (December 20, 1999), p. 2 and n. 20.

Jeffrey A. Butts, “Delinquency Cases Waived to Criminal Court, 1985-1994,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice (February 1997) (Butts), p. 1.

Strom at 7, Table 7.

Mara Dodge, “Regrettable Regression in the Way We Treat Young Criminals,” Washington Post, August 29, 1999, p. B02.


Strom at 3.

Strom at 5, Table 5.

Carol J. DeFrances & Kevin J. Strom, “Juveniles Prosecuted in State Criminal Courts,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (March 1997) p. 5, Table 5.

Butts at 2.

The decision to funnel more juveniles into the adult prison system will make even more regrettable Congress’ decision in the 1994 crime bill to deny Pell education grants to criminals, and will further ensure that these teenagers lack the tools necessary for integration into mainstream, law-abiding society.

Steven R. Donziger ed., The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (1997), p. 104.

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