Q&A: Burns Institute Executive Director James Bell

The W. Haywood Burns Institute, led by Executive Director James Bell, endeavors to address and then reduce racial disparities in local juvenile justice systems, a phenomenon commonly referred to as disproportionate minority contact (DMC). It does this mostly by working directly with communities, particularly those involved in the reform efforts undertaken by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Last year, Burns released Adoration of the Question, a paper that called on states to move beyond half-hearted attempts to address racial disparities. The San Francisco-based nonprofit recently followed up that paper with The Keeper and the Kept, which spells out exactly how Burns believes systems can make real and lasting changes in regard to DMC.

After reading the most recent Burns piece, JJ Today e-mailed some questions for Bell, who responded thoroughly.

JJToday: You have objective decision-making and creating alternatives to detention as the final steps listed in BI’s (the Burns Institute’s) “intentional approach to reducing disparities.” But many would argue that making objective decisions in case-processing and intake, and creating alternatives to detention, should happen whether a jurisdiction has a race problem or not. Is racial and ethnic analysis really necessary to make them happen, shouldn’t that analysis pertain more to policing strategies?

Bell: From our experience in jurisdictions, youth of color are disparately detained for administrative failures – such as failure to appear or placement failures – therefore, we feel it is important that decision-making about consequences for these behaviors is as race-neutral and objective as possible. Directly related to the issue of using detention as the first response to administrative failures is the reliability and quality of the alternatives available, if any. An important component of quality can be that the alternative is neighborhood-based and easily accessible. Indeed, your observation about some of these approaches being good overall practice is well taken. It is our position that reducing disparities is about good overall juvenile justice practice. However, there are strong structural notions that youth of color are so dangerous that “good practice” is not sufficient to meet their needs. Therefore, we need to focus on that dynamic specifically.

As for policing – certainly we see the greatest disparities at the point of arrest, but such disparities get worse as a youth gets deeper into the system, and the consequences become more dire. Therefore, we need to focus on all decision-making points, not just arrest or detention. Every  person who comes into contact with a youth in the system has a role – from police to intake to judges to probation – and because of the number of people involved in the whole process, we don’t want to look at just one decision-maker.

JJToday: A quote on page 8 of the report says “we have yet to encounter one jurisdiction that does not have political issues around race and ethnicity that impact its juvenile justice system – whether they are on the surface, or require some digging to uncover.”

Wasn’t quite certain what that meant. Can you give me an example (don’t have to name the place) of a political issue around race/ethnicity that impacted a juvenile justice system?

Bell: When the BI does work to reduce disparities, we often begin with a collaborative we help to bring together of traditional and nontraditional stakeholders including judges, probation, police, community people, etc. One typical example of how politics affect our effort to impact disparities involves which community people are invited to the collaborative table. There is politics around which community members are perceived as more compliant, more vocal or not team players, and often there’re elected officials around who are afraid how their statement might be perceived. Everyone is eager to speak about public safety but at the same time many are worried about saying the wrong thing or appearing racist. Such worries or problems related to racial politics and interpersonal relations can become so profound that in some jurisdictions we’ve worked in, vocal community members have been shut out of the process by being “disinvited” to meetings, or particular topics have been avoided when they’re at the table.

Almost everywhere we have been, folks of color in communities have a different sense of the system than the system has of itself. Therefore there must be someone that can address that with the skills to mediate with both parties.

JJToday: Much of the existing research on DMC revolves around why minority youth ARE brought into the system more often, and for longer; at the very least, it confirms that it is in fact happening in a lot of places. Taking the flipside of this issue, has anybody tried to figure out why white youth are NOT? Any common trends identified in how white youth avoid arrest and then further involvement in JJ systems?

Bell: We believe that the juvenile justice system is over-utilized. We know that youth of color are committing offenses at the same level as white youth, but youth of color are involved in the system more. The question really isn’t about why white youth are not detained more, but why the system is overused and only for certain youth. We know that youth do not need to be involved in the juvenile justice system to the extent that they are, and that white youth who aren’t incarcerated to the extent of youth of color are aging out of the system without the recidivism rates. We need to give all youth that benefit.
That said, there certainly is not as much data collected on the “why,” once the disparity has been identified. To answer your question, it seems the most prominent place that white youth are able to avoid arrest is diversion. White youth get offered and accept diversion programs more than youth of color, and, in our experience as we attempt to create alternatives to detention and other diversions for youth of color, we have found that the nature of the diversion program can sometimes reduce the number of youth of color who accept such programs. Diversion programs, for example, often require admitting to the alleged offense, among other conditions. Many youth of color distrust the system and will not admit to an alleged offense, while white youth readily admit because they trust that the sanction will be less severe.

JJToday: Burns Institute’s approach is one of collaboration: working with community and government to look at and then address race/ethnicity issues in juvenile justice. Is it fair to say that you have encountered sites, some within JDAI, that have no interest in taking on the DMC aspect of JJ reform? How do you generally approach situations where that is the sense your team gets?

Bell: Juvenile justice reform by its nature is work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities simply because of the fact the youth involved in most local juvenile justice systems are predominantly youth of color. Whether a juvenile justice jurisdiction wants to be intentional about reducing disparities as an issue is up to them. We believe that anyone working on juvenile justice reform will have a positive impact on kids of color because they are involved in juvenile justice at disparate rates.

That said, jurisdictions that do not want to self-examine their numbers or practices are brilliant at throwing up distractions. For example, “If the schools don’t come to the table there is nothing we can do.” Or, “It’s all about the parents and we can’t fix them.” At the BI, we are not interested in convincing people to engage in disparities. Our approach is for those who are open to the process. That is why we are in a small amount of jurisdictions. But the numbers of jurisdictions interested in engaging in this process are growing each year, which is promising.

JJToday: We heard from one jurisdiction that the biggest cause of DMC there was really hidden from plain view: judge’s orders for probation. As in, one juvenile judge routinely handed out tougher terms of probation in his orders to minorities than he did to white kids. And then, predictably, more minority youth violated probation. How would you handle that situation, because at some point someone has to confront this judge about a racist tendency, right?    

Bell: First, we would not begin by alleging or assuming that the judge had racist tendencies.  In fact, well-intentioned decision makers, in their desire to help, often try to provide additional supports or structure to high-need youth who are disproportionately youth of color.  However, this often results in the arbitrary application of tougher conditions, policies and practices on these youth, which may actually increase the disparate treatment of youth of color.  Next, we would use data to reveal the issue and work with the collaborative to establish an institutional response to the problematic practice.  Finally, if the only fix is to confront the judge, then that is our job and we have become skilled in having difficult conversations with powerful people. Importantly, we would always approach the judge with data to support the conversation and the development of a tangible solution.

JJToday:  Has any technology or software emerged that you would recommend to jurisdictions in regard to tracking racial/ethnic data?

Bell: There is no need for sophisticated software, just the political will to collect strategically. We have developed a fairly simplistic template to help jurisdictions identify whether and to what extent racial and ethnic disparities exist and to help jurisdictions to identify target populations to focus their efforts.

JJToday: OJJDP calls you tomorrow and says, “James, we want you to come in here and set up one federal demonstration project to help address DMC in local jurisdictions.” Let’s say you have $10 million to spend each year for five years. What’s the best thing you could do with that money at the federal level to help address DMC as a whole?

Bell: Realistically, we would push the system to do what it is supposed to do effectively – devolve the money down to the states and make sure that they participate in a process that is proven to have measurable reductions in racial and ethnic disparities. California is a model for such an effective system – and while its model could be even better – for now folks can take that model and adjust it for local replication.

Also, I would bring together all the JJ Specialists and DMC coordinators and give them very state specific instructions about what their work around DMC must be and that there will be performance measures regarding progress. I would use the bully pulpit to send the message that “handwringing and more dialogue are no longer acceptable.”


Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.


Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.


We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)



Recent Comments

Kennesaw State University Mountain Logo & Ceneter for Sustainable Journalism Logo
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape

Copyright © 2018 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Blvd. Suite 310, Kennesaw GA 30144

To Top