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Vernellia R. Randall
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from Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in the United States, The Status of Compliance by the U.S. Government with the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Compiled By THE WORLD ORGANIZATION AGAINST TORTURE USA



prepared by Youth Law Center and
Building Blocks for Youth Project

Based on And Justice For Some:Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System[7]

Minority youth are more likely than other juveniles to come into contact with the criminal justice system.While public attention has tended to focus on the disproportionate number of minority youth (traditionally defined as African American, Native American, Latino and Asian) in confinement, their overrepresentation often is a product of a series of critical decision points that occur throughout the juvenile justice system.These include the decision to make the initial arrest, the decision to hold a youth in detention pending investigation, the prosecutor’s decision to refer a case to juvenile court, the determination that a youth should be tried as an adult, and the nature and extent of sanctions imposed by the court.

A number of studies suggest that these processing decisions in many state and local juvenile justice systems are not racially neutral.Minority youth are more likely than white youth to be arrested, prosecuted and penalized, with their overrepresentation increasing at each stage of the process.Disparities begin at the intake and detention decision points, and tend to accumulate as youth are processed through the system.This “cumulative disadvantage” of minority youth within the juvenile justice system is reflected in a 1997 report on disproportionate minority confinement which found that overrepresentation increased from the point of arrest through other points in the system to the final point of confinement in thirty-one of thirty-six states studied.[8]Two-thirds of the research studies on minority confinement in the juvenile justice system have found negative “race effects” at one stage or another of the process.

In 1998 for instance, the majority of arrests of juveniles involved white youth.African American youth were over-represented as a proportion of arrests in twenty-six of twenty-nine offense categories documented by the FBI.African American youth also are more likely than white youth to be detained pretrial or formally charged in juvenile court, even when charged with the same offense.And, minority youth were much more likely than white youth to be waived to adult criminal court.This was true in every offense category.

As expected, much of the existing research on the discriminatory treatment of minority youth has focused primarily on disparities associated with the processing of youth through the juvenile courts and the disproportionate confinement of minority youth in facilities while under juvenile court jurisdiction.However, with lawmakers across the country actively pursuing measures to “get tough” on serious and violent juvenile offenses, increasing numbers of juveniles are being processed through adult criminal courts.Currently, all states and the District of Columbia allow adult criminal prosecution of juveniles under some circumstances.In addition, between 1992 and 1997, legislatures in forty-seven States and the District of Columbia enacted laws that either made it easier to transfer youth from the juvenile justice system to the adult criminal justice system, gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options, or modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions.[9]

As a result of these trends, the consequences of disproportionate numbers of minority youth flowing through the juvenile justice system no longer simply concerns juvenile court sanctions.Now it also reflects a disproportionate number of minority youth subject to adult court processing, and their incarceration in adult jails and prisons.A 1998 report showed that African American youth were involved in less than one-half (41%) of cases of juveniles initially charged with a felony, but two-thirds (67%) of these cases that involved prosecutions as adults in the criminal justice system.[10]Almost two-thirds of all juveniles transferred on a felony charge were convicted in adult court and about two-thirds of these convictions involved incarceration - 49% in adult prison and 19% in adult jails.Indeed, a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice reports that the number of people under age 18 who are sentenced to adult state prisons each year more than doubled between 1985 and 1997 -- from 3,400 to 7,400.[11]Since two-thirds of those cases involved minority youth, a disproportionate number of those sentenced and incarcerated for these crimes also are of color.

Unfortunately, research in this area specific to Latino youth is scant.Inconsistencies in the collection and presentation of information on Latino populations in the justice system continue to be a problem.Since many data systems fail to disaggregate ethnicity from race, Latino youth are often counted as "White." As a result, if anything, data on the extent to which minority populations are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system generally under-report the number of minority youth affected in much of the analysis of this issue. 

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