Budgets Pressures Lead to Less Incarceration of Black Youth

by Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent


WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Dwindling state budgets have had an unintended positive effect – prompting states to reduce the number of juveniles arrested and detained, according to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute.

JPI, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform,  identified five states that achieved more than 50 percent reduction in youth confinement: Connecticut (down 57.2 percent), Tennessee (55.0 percent), Louisiana (52.7 percent), Minnesota (50.6 percent) and Arizona (50.2 percent). The confinement population includes those held at youth detention centers mandated by the courts, those await court proceedings and youth admitted voluntarily as a form of shock therapy to discourage future lawlessness.

“If you take a look at the list of states, they don’t have a lot in common geographically or culturally,” said Spike Bradford, a senior research associate at JPI. “This change in juvenile confinement can happen anywhere.”

The study from the Justice Policy Institute described how states have worked to reform their juvenile justice systems with varying levels of success.

Some states achieved a reduction in their youth incarceration numbers by changing the “fiscal architecture” of the system where some locales spend as much as $240 per day, per youth; others placed a greater emphasis on treatment and some closed facilities.

The JPI report found a number of similarities between the states that were able to reduce their numbers by more than half. Class action lawsuits were filed against those states over the conditions of the juvenile justice system.

“State leaders and stakeholders understand that successful lawsuits may result in costly settlements and other sanctions if remedies are not met,” said the JPI report. “Savvy community leaders also recognize that negative media attention on a state’s treatment of young people–adjudicated delinquent or not–influences public opinion about their government.”

The juvenile justice system was also separated from the adult system and inter-agency partnerships were beefed up. State officials also recognized the myriad difference between youth behavior and their mistakes and adult criminal behavior.

“Four of the five top performing states uncoupled juvenile and adult corrections and/or integrated juvenile corrections with child welfare services,” said the JPI report.

This strategy could greatly benefit Black youth who compromise 62 percent of the young people prosecuted in adult courts, but roughly 17 percent of the entire youth population, according to the CDF.

“When you look at young people as kids that make certain kinds of mistakes and have certain kinds of decision-making skills you will be less likely to put them behind bars and more likely to give them behavioral treatments that are more appropriate for their age,” said Bradford. “By doing that you’re saving money because confinement is the most expensive thing that we can do.”

Bradford said that the key to steering youth away from prisons is to treat them as young people not as adults.

“Developmentally appropriate responses, because you’ll find that when you look at young people as kids that make certain kinds of mistakes and have certain kinds of decision-making skills you will be less likely to put them behind bars and more likely to give them behavioral treatment that are more appropriate for their age, said Bradford. “By doing that you’re saving money because confinement is the most expensive thing that we can do.”

Bradford added: “If you can divert kids from confinement in developmentally appropriate ways you almost have to save money.”

According, to the Justice Policy Institute, there were 70,792 youth serving time in American correctional facilities in 2010, down from 107,000 in 1999. The Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy organization, found that two-thirds of the young people in the juvenile justice system were minorities.

JPI also reported  that states have also reduced the number of youth held for drug offenses over the last decade from 8.7 percent in 2001 to 7 percent in 2010. Status offenses like running away and under age drinking saw little improvement over the same period and public order offenses that range from “disorderly conduct to bringing weapons to school” climbed from 10.4 to 11.5 percent.

Despite the success that states are seeing, Black youth and minority youth are still incarcerated at higher rates than their White counterparts, a trend that has gotten worse since 2001, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

“Disproportionality in the juvenile justice system permeates every stage of the process: from who and where we police, to the sentencing stage of adjudication, to community supervision policies and practices. Scant research has been done on why these disparities are deepening,” stated the JPI report.

JPI recommended a number of strategies for jurisdictions seeking to curtail juvenile confinement including: supporting a juvenile justice commission, reaching out to organizations such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Model for Change and Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, separating the juvenile justice system from the adult system and developmentally appropriate interventions and perform better research for sharper analysis.

The report said that states must also address disparities between White youth and youth of color and perform more research to better track problems that lurk within the system.

“That’s really the billion-dollar question,” said Bradford. “Every time someone tries to change something at different parts of the system, no one seems to hit whatever it is that’s going to change [the disparities between Whites and Blacks],” said Bradford. “I don’t’ know if it’s a bigger cultural problem or the way we police. It could be any number of things.”


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