In the past two decades, the number of youth who are detained or incarcerated by juvenile justice systems has plummeted, a trend largely attributable to declining arrest rates and buffered by intentional system reform.
But as the overall numbers have dropped, the racial disparity inside those juvenile facilities has increased, according to new data from the W. Haywood Burns Institute. And in some states, including California, the gap is getting much wider.
In 1997, a black youth was 4.9 times more likely than a white youth to be detained for an alleged crime after an arrest. In 2015, black youth were 6.1 times more likely.
“Historically, white youth have benefitted from system reform when youth of color have not,” said Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). “The data bears this point out.”
Though overall youth detention rates have dropped significantly over the past 20 years, California has seen the race gap widen in that same timeframe. In 1997, 5.6 black youths were incarcerated for every white youth. In 2015, that ratio was 9.1 to 1.
The state has also seen a growing disparity in the incarceration rates for Latino and white youths. According to recent analysis from the Sentencing Project, Latino youth are 2.37 times more likely to be locked up in California than their white peers. Overall, this disparity has grown in California by 29 percent from 2000 to 2015. Like black youth, Latino youth have not seen the same drop in the rate of youth incarceration that their white counterparts have had over the same time.
The early years encompassed in this data represent a height of California’s use of detention for juvenile offenders following the national “get tough” policies of the 1990s. Since then, the number of juvenile arrests has plummeted, and in many state and county systems, there has been a reduced reliance on locked facilities.
Anna Wong, a senior policy associate for the Burns Institute, said the racial gap has widened regardless of this because “few reform efforts put equity at the forefront of their agenda.”
A major point in California’s shift toward deinstitutionalization was the 2007 Senate Bill 81, which prohibited counties from placing most youth in state-run incarceration facilities, which were repeatedly criticized for violent and abusive practices.
SB 81 sent most youth to county-run detention facilities, but also provided block-grant funding to counties for intervention and diversion programs for youthful offenders. But juvenile justice advocates in the state say that money hasn’t benefitted all youth.
“These diversion approaches are available in communities that have resources,” said Dr. B.K. Elizabeth Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. She added that the majority of kids in the juvenile justice system come from poor families and under-resourced communities.
In California, black youth are sent to the adult justice system at an astronomically higher rate than white youth. Before last year, the state’s direct file policy had given prosecutors carte blanche to try automatically try juvenile offenders as adults for certain crimes.
In 2014, black juvenile offenders in California were directly filed into adult court at a rate of 91 per 100,000 cases. For their white counterparts, only eight per 100,000 cases met the same fate.
“Youth of color are more likely to be arrested once they come in contact with the police than white youth, they’re more likely to be charged after an arrest, they’re more likely to be transferred to an adult court, they’re more likely to be sentenced more harshly,” Kim said. “So at every point, getting deeper and deeper into the system, they’re just more likely to be pulled into the system than having other opportunities.”
More recent reforms may start to eliminate this racial chasm. Prop. 57, passed in 2016, repealed the direct file policy. Given the stark disparity in direct file outcomes, experts hope Prop. 57 will serve to bring more racial equality into the juvenile justice system.
A set of laws enacted by California Gov. Jerry Brown in October eliminate significant fees connected to many services in the juvenile justice system, based on “research that found court practices and fines disproportionately affect low-income and black and Latino children.”
The Los Angeles Country Board of Supervisors is moving forward with a plan to divert more youth away from detention and incarceration at the point of arrest; the report recommending this plan specifically acknowledges and aims to address the “disproportionate burden of arrest and incarceration” faced by youth of color.
“To have a significant and lasting impact on reducing racial and ethnic disparities within the justice system, system stakeholders must pursue equity intentionally,” Wong said.
Both Fazal and Kim said that to address this disparity, California counties need to invest in wraparound services, community-based efforts to prevent or divert high-risk youth from entering the deeper end of the juvenile justice system.
“Reforming the system is a good thing,” Fazal said. “But in order to reduce disparities, these system reforms need to be bolder and reach outward into the community, and include the expertise of youth and families of color.”
Sara Tiano is a graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.