Praise, and Criticism, for NCCD on Disparity Research

The Chronicle of Social Change reported yesterday on new research about racial disparity in juvenile facilities in the wake of a decade that saw the juvenile incarceration rate drop 41 percent.

It was worth the time to report on it, because racial disparity in juvenile justice is an issue about which many youth workers and advocates are passionate. And NCCD’s findings were significant: the report suggests that already racially disparate juvenile facilities are becoming more so.

You can and should click here to read the article, which has links to the original NCCD report. It also includes excellent insight about policies that support further curbing of juvenile incarceration, gleaned from more than a hundred interviews with system stakeholders.

But Youth Services Insider felt there two things that needed to be said about the way this research was presented to the world.

1) NCCD tweeted out the link to its report with the following slug:

“New NCCD research: youth incarceration is down, but not 4 youth of color”

That is an absolutely preposterous statement for an organization to make, particularly one that routinely conducts original research. And it is a proposition that is never once discussed in the report, which focuses on disposition outcomes.

There are only two scenarios that would support such a statement. One would be the total number of incarcerated juveniles dropping while the total number of incarcerated minority juveniles increased; or the juvenile incarceration rate went down, but the incarceration rate for minority juveniles went up.

The truth is quite the opposite. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation cites the following juvenile incarceration rate shifts between 1997 and 2011:

African-American Juveniles
1997: 968 per 100,000
2011: 605 per 100,000

Latino Juveniles
1997: 468 per 100,000
2011: 229 per 100,000

Are those rates still way higher than incarceration rates for white juveniles? Definitely. But the reality is that juvenile incarceration is down, especially for youth of color.

Why get bent out of shape over this? Keep in mind that the reality of modern news conveyance is that tweets are headlines, the tease that draws a reader to more, far more so than actual slugs on top of news articles or wordy report titles.

2) The NCCD findings were based on a comparison of 1,250 dispositions in 2002 to 1,250 in 2012. Both are random samples of dispositions from five counties (250 from each), and there is no information provided on the ethnic makeup of the two samples.

The comparison of those samples shows that 37 percent of the 2012 dispositions involved minority youth being placed in juvenile facilities (secure or otherwise), compared with only 23 of the 2002 dispositions. White youth headed to placements accounted for about the same amount of dispositions in both years.

This strikes YSI as a strange way of examining what NCCD seems to want to know: Whether patterns of disposition are changing as incarceration declines, and whether those changes were different for different races.

Were the samples half white and half “not-white”, giving any disposition a 50-50 chance of being assigned to one or the other? NCCD did not indicate in its methodology.

To really get at this, it seems to YSI like you would need a sample of white juveniles with dispositions, and a separate sample of minority juveniles with dispositions, for both years. Ideally, you’d have a nearly identical basket of offenses included for both groups, and for both years.

You might then see whether the systems’ dispositional treatment of whites changed in a manner that was different to their treatement of minorities.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle of Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.