More Must be Done to Reduce Minority Contact in Juvenile Justice

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By Nancy Gannon Hornberger and Gina E. Wood  Unfairness plagues our nation’s juvenile justice systems. Shocking racial inequities in juvenile justice are well known to many working in education, child welfare, delinquency prevention, policing, court services, mental health and child advocacy. Increasingly, the public at large shares this awareness and understanding of unequal treatment.

Twenty-two years ago, the National Coalition of State Juvenile Justice Advisory Groups ­–composed of diverse advocates and practitioners – called on the president, Congress and Department of Justice to develop federal policy, resources and incentives to spur state/local policy and practice changes aimed at ensuring equity and eliminating persistent, differential and more severe treatment of youth of color in juvenile justice. Then and now, our coalition (now the Coalition for Juvenile Justice) has held special responsibility to keep resolution of racial and ethnic disparities at the forefront of all juvenile justice reform efforts. 

It is heartbreaking and senseless that another generation has been lost to reprehensible inequities in juvenile justice. CJJ leaders and members cannot and will not rest on the knowledge that we once informed and encouraged enactment of a DMC (disproportionate minority contact) core requirement in the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). That’s because the powerful platform was never effectuated, and strong recommendations were thwarted by a lack of sound federal policy or regulation and by an anemic federal-state partnership for eliminating DMC.

Meanwhile, states, localities, nonprofit organizations, private foundations, universities and individuals have courageously moved forward, producing profound changes to try to eliminate DMC. Bright spots of progress in states and localities can be held up as examples to be emulated, adapted and adopted with vigorous public and private support. Opportunities to address this tragic status quo are imminent:

Congress is poised to reauthorize the JJDPA. The Senate Judiciary Committee has given bipartisan support to a strong bill and, in concert with the House and president, can move forward with passage of an amendment to significantly improve the current DMC “requirement” by requiring both problem-identification and problem-solving.

The new, widely-supported policy changes would require states to:

1. Establish coordinating bodies to oversee efforts to reduce disparities.

2. Identify key decision points in the system (i.e., arrest, detention, diversion) and the criteria by which decisions are made.

3. Create systems to collect local data at these points of contact of youth with the juvenile justice system (including case level/individual level data) to identify where disparities exist and the causes of such disparities.

4. Develop and implement plans to address disparities that include measurable objectives for change.

5. Publicly report findings.

6. Evaluate progress toward reducing disparities.

Our attorney general and officials at the Department of Justice clearly are champions for human rights and equal justice. We welcome and need their visionary leadership to resolve racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice. It is good to see them focus the Federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention on the topic of DMC, and to know that OJJDP’s study with the National Academies of the Sciences will examine ways to increase federal DMC leadership, among other issues.

We hope, too, that the Department of Justice will engage leaders in the field, the states, nonprofits and foundations to implement broad, vital federal-state and public-private partnerships aimed at eliminating DMC. Great progress is being made, yet resources at hand in states and localities are dwarfed by those that the department could bring forward and the state and local investments they could help to leverage. 

Jurisdictions are already achieving measurable reductions in racial and ethnic disparities using data-driven strategies guided by collaborative groups of traditional and non-traditional juvenile justice stakeholders. Key examples include: 

  • Peoria County, Ill., has reduced disproportionate referrals of youth of color to the juvenile justice system by working with schools to strengthen school-based conflict resolution protocols. 
  • Travis County, Texas, has reduced its disproportionate incarceration of youth of color for technical probation violations with a Sanction Supervision Program, which provides intensive case management and probation services to youth and families.
  • Baltimore County, Md., has reduced by 50 percent the secure detention of African- American youth resulting from bench warrants for failing to appear in court, by instituting a reminder call program.
  • New Jersey, by implementing the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), has produced significant reductions in DMC. Disparities between youth of color held in detention versus those placed in alternatives, as compared with white youth similarly charged, dropped across five counties.

It is past time for all of us – communities, states, federal government, Congress, courts, advocates and practitioners – to take action. Overcoming racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice is an important focus and challenge of our time. Together, we must close any gaps in national/federal leadership, policy solutions, regulatory guidance, training and technical assistance, and research and evaluation, while also bolstering innovation and uniting national, state and local, public and private leaders for a renewed and redoubled national commitment to fundamental fairness in juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

Nancy Gannon Hornberger is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, based in Washington, D.C. Gina E. Wood chairs the coalition’s Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee. Brad Richardson, the national DMC coordinator representative, contributed to this blog .