It Starts in the School: Reality of Racial Disparity

CHICAGO – Julie Anderson is 55, white and squarely in the middle class. “I’m not exactly liberal,” she said. But sometimes a person’s views shift when hard facts are laid bare before her.

Anderson confronts such facts weekly, when she makes the six-hour, 350-mile drive from her home in Chicago to visit her son at Illinois’ Menard Correctional Center in Chester.

For the past 17 years, he has been serving a sentence of life without parole for murder, most of it in lockdown. He was 15 when he was arrested and transferred to adult court for prosecution.

“It’s like we’re imprisoning an entire race of people,” Anderson said of the makeup of Menard’s population, which averages just over 3,400 inmates, 62 percent of them black. In contrast, less than 15 percent of the state’s nearly 13 million people are black.

“It’s happening. We tell everyone else, every other country, what to do. Look in your own backyard,” Anderson said.

Incarceration, and the long-term deprivation of rights that accompanies it, is now almost the norm for many African-American men. For example, one in five Cook County (Chicago) black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in prison or under parole supervision.

While the number of adults in state and federal prisons has grown nearly six-fold in the past three decades, topping out at about 2 million, the number of juveniles in custody nationwide has dropped by nearly a third since 1997. The juvenile population was 71,000 in 2010, the last year a national census of juvenile prisoners was taken. But the proportion of blacks to whites has remained constant: Basically, five African-American youths are in custody for each white youth.

A popular theory blames the nation’s war on drugs for the large percentage of black juveniles in jail, but drug arrests – especially arrests of black juveniles for drug crimes – have dropped precipitously in recent years.

Offsetting that decline have been the sharp increases in the number of black youths jailed for relatively minor crimes – simple assault, robbery, theft, and public order and so-called status offenses – the kinds of charges that often originate in schools and other public places under “zero tolerance” policies. The intent of the policies is to beat back even the most minor offenses by taking to court cases that were once handled by a lecture from the principal or a teacher, or parents.

Critics argue that zero tolerance policies have turned many urban schools into bunkers and placed a premium on safety at the expense of education. Police officers have largely replaced educators as the new “first responders,” cracking down on even minor offenses, which can stain a youth’s record and ruin the youth’s career.

Institutional Racism?

Some see this reality as just the latest version of Jim Crow, replacing laws that blocked black achievement with policies that do the same thing.

Pamela Rodriguez, head of TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities), an Illinois organization seeking restorative justice, says the first step in reducing disproportionate minority contact (DMC), is to put a buffer between the police and at-risk youth.

“People focus on sentencing and other violations in the detention system,” she said. “But we need to do something with the initial contact between youth and the law before we can possibly revolutionize this issue and really start to change it.”

The first line for many is education.

“Kicking kids out of school is the first big step in the minority trajectory into the juvenile system,” Rodriguez said. “The other path into the system is child welfare. But if you don’t want to go that far back, then it has to be at the point of police contact.”

Chicago aldermen recently demanded that the city’s school system reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions by 40 percent, which would be on top of a 43 percent reduction in expulsions this year.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle even suggested blowing up the juvenile justice detention center, where 75 percent of inmates are black compared with about a third of city juveniles who are black.

“I meant that we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period,” she said. “My administration is working toward secure homes – small group homes – scattered around the city that would offer a more humane alternative. I certainly wouldn’t mind being part of the demolition of the JTDC in the future, or I look forward to its repurposing, possibly by the state.”

Not every city is making headway, according to critics. New York City was taken to task for lopping about $150 million off its budget for child welfare and school-related programs, at the very time advocates argue a tighter safety net is needed.

And in Los Angeles, there was outcry over the high number of summonses – upwards of more than 33,500 – issued to youth in the school system. The Center for Public Integrity, which released those findings, also highlighted the fact that a disproportionate number of the children targeted were black or Hispanic.

Whatever the reasons, the numbers add up to human rights violations, according to Alison Parker, director of the U.S. office of Human Rights Watch. She attributes the disproportionate number of black youths in the correction system to police making the obvious arrests.

“Police are enforcing drug laws on the streets. They’re not going into suburban living rooms, into university dorm rooms and private places,” Parker said. “There might be more whites than blacks who are offending, but it’s easier to patrol a street. … On the street, it’s all right there.”

For John, a 15-year tactical officer from Chicago’s South Side who targets gangs, drugs and youth violence, keeping the streets safe while balancing rights is a tricky line to walk. (He asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for the police department.)

“There are good people – very good people – living on a dangerous block, and they see the risks, so they call us out, which means more visits and stops by police,” he said.

“It’s a cycle, but it’s not like it seems. The hard part is the fact that the same neighborhoods that call us out have people who don’t like the heavy police presence, and they say we’re targeting or sweeping. It’s not the case. You can’t ignore it when people are firing guns, when people are dealing and when people are dying and the good people get caught up.”

“A lot of people want to blame the racist cop, to attribute it to the white officer picking up the black kid just because,” Parker said. “But it’s not just racist cops sweeping the streets; it’s more embedded in the system.”

Origins of the juvenile system

The whole basis of the juvenile justice system – which originated in Chicago in 1899 – is that young people are not fully developed and are unable to keep their impulses in check but are also more amenable to rehabilitation. Juvenile justice is supposed to offer youths a way to reset their bearings after teetering off course, so their whole lives aren’t warped by one event.

That approach seems to have been turned on its head, starting in the 1980s and early 1990s with predictions of “super-predator” youths – who never materialized. Over a decade, the thrust of juvenile justice moved from rehabilitation to punishment.

Skip forward two decades, and now a simple incident in school can lead to lifelong exile from upward mobility and to deprivation of civil rights. Youths arrested and charged for incidents in schools often lag in their school work and fall even further behind while serving suspensions or juvenile sentences.

Too often these youths drop out of school completely, practically ensuring they will have to struggle their whole lives for worthwhile, good-paying work. Forecasts see few jobs in coming decades for people without at least a high school education, and a continuing bias against black men with criminal convictions.

Recent studies assert that the judgment portions of the human brain aren’t fully developed until around age 25; still, many states are pushing younger and younger children into the adult correctional system because of behavioral issues.


The unequal application of law enforcement to minorities wasn’t a focus of the original law establishing the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 1974.

Though racial disparities in the juvenile justice system were suspected then, it was not until the amendments of 1984 that ameliorating disproportionate minority confinement became an OJJDP goal.

Amendments to the act in 1988 and 2002 broadened the scope of the problem from mainly confinement to the different treatment of minorities at every level of the juvenile justice system. Addressing those discrepancies became the basis for awarding grants to states and localities.

A report that analyzed 1997-98 data found that the bias against black youth merely began on the street, but in many states had become institutionalized throughout the juvenile justice process. Although blacks make up about 13 percent of the country’s overall juvenile population, the study found they constitute:

• 26 percent of juvenile arrests.

• 31 percent of referrals to juvenile court.

• 44 percent of those detained before trial.

• 34 percent of those formally presented at juvenile court (charged).

• 32 percent of youth adjudicated delinquent (found guilty).

• 46 percent of youth waived to adult court.

• 40 percent of youth in residential placement.

• 58 percent of youth admitted to state (adult) prisons.

The study found that the bias existed in 31 of the 36 states examined.

Alternate approaches

The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation have poured millions of dollars into alternative detention programs over the past decade. Their brand of juvenile justice programs seems to be turning the tide, as some jurisdictions and a few states return to the juvenile justice concept of offering support programs to keep juveniles out of jail. Part of the change can be attributed to sharp and continuing budget shortfalls in most states – they simply don’t have the $20,000-plus it costs to keep a juvenile locked up for a year.

It’s a long way back to restorative justice.

Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said at an April conference of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, in Houston, that “policymakers, justice system practitioners and whole communities are prepared to eschew the policies of mass incarceration that have been at the center of crime policy for the past four decades.”

“The cutting back on the harsh treatment of troubled youth will not necessarily correspond with an uptick in violence,” Lubow told a gathering of 700. “Indeed, rehabilitation services – as they more and more take the place of punitive laws – will ease the transition and cap crime rates.”

Juveniles in adult jails

The move toward alternatives to incarceration for youths has not breached the law-and-order divide or calmed those who demand harsh penalties for youths who commit violent crimes and some drug crimes.

Though recent studies show that the longer juveniles are held in adult jails – either awaiting trial or after being convicted of adult charges – the more likely they are to return to crime and, ultimately, prison. Some states have raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction, sparing more youth from exposure to adult jails.

Other states have made different drastic changes. West Virginia halted the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles in response to a lawsuit by two young inmates of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem. California debated realigning its entire juvenile justice system. Colorado is studying whether youth can be charged as adults without first getting the approval of a judge, which is now required. Georgia tried, but failed, to push through the legislature a complete rewrite of the juvenile justice system.

But there have also been new revelations of severe racial discrimination.

In late April, a Justice Department review found “serious and systemic failures” in the juvenile justice system in Memphis, Tenn. – findings Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said could shed light on the treatment of minorities elsewhere.

The Justice review showed that African-American youths in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County were arrested and jailed at twice the rate of whites. The same was true for the rate at which African-Americans’ cases were sent to adult court.

“Whether or not someone intends to discriminate is not relevant under human rights law,” said Parker of Human Rights Watch.

“It’s whether [racism is] happening – the statistics show it’s the case – and if it’s as widespread as it is in the United States, then it’s a human rights violation.”

Life without parole

About 60 percent of, states have automatic waiver laws that require anyone charged with certain crimes – often including homicide, felony sexual assault, kidnapping, armed robbery and armed carjacking – to be tried as adults. The automatic waivers usually apply to anyone 15 or older. The result: 2,600 people are now serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Sixty percent of those inmates are black.

“When a black boy kills, it may be no more heinous than when a white boy does,” Parker said. “It’s the same crime, but maybe the black boy doesn’t present as well, show as much remorse, is indigent, is lacking counsel – or maybe there is bias on the part of police or prosecutors. We can examine all of those actors, and we should, but also there’s embedded, structural racism in the system.”

About 450 of the 2,600 inmates nationwide who are serving life without parole for offenses committed as juveniles are imprisoned in Pennsylvania, which mandates life without parole for anyone convicted of murder. The state leads all others in the number of people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles – and that number has grown by more than 100 in the past three years. African-Americans are 1.5 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania as whites, according to Human Rights Watch.

Although many argue that life without parole is a lesser sentence than a death sentence, both guarantee that the inmate will die in prison.

Human Rights Watch cited the United States as one of only two countries in the world that impose life without parole sentences on juveniles. The other is Somalia.

A 2005 Human Rights Watch report first focused attention on the imposition of life without parole for juveniles in this country. Among other things, the report found that basic human rights were violated through sexual and physical violence at the hands of other inmates and correctional officers.

The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court took the death penalty for juveniles off the books, ruling that their minds were not yet fully developed and death sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Two years ago, the court ruled that juveniles not convicted of murder could not be sentenced to a term that did not provide a meaningful opportunity for parole. But the high court did not define what a “meaningful opportunity” is, and some inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole have been resentenced to such lengthy prison sentences that parole is highly unlikely.

In March, the court heard arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which seeks to overturn all juvenile life without parole sentences – including those imposed in murder convictions – on the grounds that life without parole is essentially a death sentence.

A ruling is expected before the current session of the court ends later this month.

The notion that the approach to juvenile offenders should be softened is nonsense, according to those who believe crime is at 48-year lows precisely because people are being held accountable and tough sentences are being imposed.

“I have the education, I could afford a lawyer, and it was stacked against me,” Anderson told a small sentencing forum in early March, in a synagogue just north of Chicago. “But [inmates of color], their families, who I see when I visit – they had no chance at all.”

Asked to elaborate, she explained, “Everyone brings their strengths to the table in court, during trial, whether it’s clear language or emotion. But these people had nothing.”

Eric Ferkenhoff, a former Chicago Tribune crime and education reporter, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School.


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