Burns Releases First in Series of DMC Reports


The San Francisco-based Burns Institute (BI) has released the first installment of "Adoration of the Question," the first in a series of reports it plans to publish over the coming year to mark the 20th anniversary of the federal mandate to address disproportionate minority confinement (or contact, depending on who you ask). The title is a reference, authors say, to German philosopher Friedrich Hegel's belief that unendingly adoring the question overwhelms the search for answers.

Volume One is entitled "Reflections on the Failure to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System."

BI Founder James Bell, who co-wrote the report with BI law and policy analyst Laura John Ridolfi, spells out the context of the report well in his preface. There is a lingering "spirit of hope, possibility and change," Bell says, that comes with the notion that Barack Obama's presidency marks the dawn of a post-racial era. On the other hand, the disproportionate likelihood that a black or brown youth will get locked up is one of the starkest reminders that, in some arenas, racism endures.

The volume is an excellent primer on DMC, which everyone should become familiar with because it will be a focus of juvenile justice work in this administration. Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree will be a major adviser to Obama on civil rights and he used almost the exact same phrasing as Bell when discussing the notion of a post-racial society. His organization at Harvard has also released a recent report on DMC.

Two themes come through loud and clear from Burns, which is the lead organization on DMC issues for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and also works with the Center for Children's Law and Policy on DMC for MacArthur's Models for Change.

First, BI has no use or regard for the body of work spawned from the JJDPA core requirement. Essentially, all states are required to do is "address" DMC. There is no demand that they actually improve anything.

"How many more annual DMC-related conferences will be held to restate what was discussed the year before?" ask the authors, Bell and Ridolfi. "How much money will be spent on hotel rooms and catering instead of programming that is intentional, targeted, data-driven, and has been proven to reduce disparities?"

Second is the frustration Burns has with people who are resigned to the idea that "addressing DMC requires the seemingly impossible task of solving the macro-level social issues that have negatively impacted poor communities and communities of color for centuries."

Not so, the authors say. You can use "data to critically investigate whether internal juvenile justice policies and practices are contributing to disproportionality."

Very true. But finding proof of where disparity lives does nothing in and of itself; the proof must be used to change procedure and decision-making.

That sets up an interesting question, as a Justice Department well-versed on DMC begins and the most precise DMC data ever recorded comes in from Burns and CCLP (Burns will have a data map available on the web in January). An enacted public policy is not attached to any one person or group. But what if the proof points to a racially biased decision-maker (or makers) in the system? Some might realize the error of their ways, but others will surely stiffen at the accusation of racism.

For example, one DMC researcher told JJ Today that she "found that on average [juvenile] minorities were...somehow receiving higher-level probation sanctions" for low-level crimes.

Problem solved? Not quite. All the researcher got for reporting her findings was "a lot of heat."      

So what can be done in that situation? Do interested parties sue? That is not easily done, JJ Today was told by one expert, for two reasons: There isn't a federal statute on which to hang a hypothetical DMC lawsuit, and it would be difficult to prove intent (as in, the judge hit minority youth with tougher probation terms instead of unknowingly doing so).

Forthcoming volumes of "Adoration of the Question" will describe the "tools, technologies, insights and strategies" that BI has used.