Systemic racism in the United States is a structural problem that is difficult to deconstruct. We have known this since the Civil Rights Movement, through Black Lives Matter, and especially after the tragic death of George Floyd.
While we are aware that justice in the United States is indeed blind, the reality for our youth is even more terrible.
According to official figures, the United States incarcerates an alarming number of children and adolescents each year. Disproportionately, they are youth of color.
So explained the Sentencing Project’s “Too Many Locked Doors” report, which revealed the extent of racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. prison system.
According to the report, Black and Latino youth encounter police more often than their white peers and are disproportionately arrested. Despite modest differences in behavior, the authors cannot explain the extent of disparities in arrests.
These differences in incarceration begin with arrests but increase at every point of contact throughout the justice system. In about one-quarter of delinquency cases across the decade, a youth was arrested prior to sentencing. When Black and Latino youth are arrested, they are more likely to be detained than their white peers.
“Every time juvenile courts decide to confine a young person, even for short stays, devastating and life-long consequences may result,” said Josh Rovner, Senior Advocacy Associate and the author of the new report.
“Understanding the full scope of kids’ incarceration is critical to protecting youth and ensuring equal justice for youth of color,” Rovner noted in a news release.
Although progress has been made in recent years in closing youth detention centers, and although the numbers seem to indicate that far fewer youth are being detained each year than at the turn of the century, the system’s intricacies continue to put youth of color at risk.
The report found that young Black and Latinos referred to juvenile courts are more likely than at the beginning of the decade to be locked up in prison following their arrests. These increases occurred across all ages, races, ethnicities, and offense categories.
The most prominent finding is that youth of color are arrested even more often than their white peers.
Most of these youth will not be confined long-term once their cases are adjudicated, indicating that detention is overused despite its detrimental consequences for youth and public safety.
To their detriment, juvenile courts treat Black and Latino youth differently than their white peers. They are arrested and detained more frequently for all categories of offenses.
Concerning recommendations to change this reality, the report notes that the decline in the overall use of detention and confinement is primarily due to decreases in juvenile crime and arrests, not to increased caution or better decision making.
“Whether for one day, one week, one month, or longer, it is clear that the United States locks up too many of its youth,” the report concludes. “The drops in detention likelihood for youth referred on drug offenses point to the possibility of progress built on changed public attitudes toward drug crimes and other offenses. Many, if not most, programs provided behind locked doors can be provided in the community, giving youth in conflict with the law-and all youth — the opportunity to succeed with the support of their families.”