Racial & Ethnic Disparities Are In Youth Prisons

photo: US News & World Report

We’re using the mnemonic, l-o-c-k-e-d u-p, to show some of the main characteristics of a youth prison in a series of articles, Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison? One of those characteristics is that youth prisons are full of racial & ethnic disparities.

What are the racial & ethnic disparities in youth prisons?

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), youth of color are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than White youth, comprising nearly 70% of incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system. In 2013, Black youth were 4.6 times as likely; Native American youth were 3.3 times as likely; and Latino youth were 1.7 times as likely to be incarcerated than White youth.

Despite the fact that youth incarceration has been cut in half in the last decade, racial and ethnic disparities have increased according to new analysis, Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests, by the Sentencing Project. “Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure commitment increased by 15%,” says report author Joshua Rovner. He concludes that, “These trends suggest that the successful reforms that have led to fewer overall arrests and fewer commitments have not been shared equally among all youth and, in fact, are benefiting white youth the most.”

In another key study, Stemming the Tide, released by the Haywood Burns Institute this year, key findings include these alarming facts:

· Youth of color are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, sentenced, and incarcerated than are their White peers.

* While the overall rate of incarceration of all youth has decreased by 55% since 1997, the rate of incarceration of youth of color continues to rise, marking an alarming pattern.

· Latino youth have been between one and a half and two times as likely as White youth to be committed to out-of-home placements. Moreover, data consistently indicate that Latino youth are undercounted, making it likely that the disparity is even more significant.

· For Native American youth, the disparity gap between Native American and White youth has risen in every offense category between 1997 and 2013.

· Sixty-seven percent of youth incarcerated for a technical violation were young people of color.

These facts are often undermined by a false impression that youth of color commit more crime than white youth. That is simply not true. Results from self-report surveys indicate that white youth are in fact significantly more likely than youth of color to use drugs and alcohol, sell drugs, and engage in minor theft. Although white youth admit high drug use, African-American youth are twice as likely to be arrested and detained.

photo: Dallas Morning News
What does this mean?

These studies underscore the need to redouble efforts nationally to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the incarceration of youth.

“Having an over-representation of young people of color in confinement means that those young people’s life outcomes are seriously diminished,” says one of the nation’s leaders on efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, James Bell, Founder and Executive Director of the Haywood Burns Institute. “And that is why we as a society should care mightily about this.”

One positive sign is that recent public opinion polling, conducted by GBA Strategies, shows that the public believes that states must reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.

Look for “U” next week