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Justice Lab

Black Boy, White Boy

Another way justice is not colorblind

Last week, Pew released a poll suggesting 75 percent of Americans prefer using probation and social services to address juvenile law-breaking, as opposed to incarceration. Those opinions were fairly consistent across party lines and echo recent policymaking; since the mid-1990s, the juvenile incarceration rate has been cut in half, with many states shifting resources into social services for struggling kids.

But what if kids of color don’t have equal access to the these services?

That’s the conclusion of a new study from Joshua Cochran of the University of South Florida and Daniel Mears of Florida State University. The researchers looked at the records of nearly 75,000 juveniles referred to Florida courts during 2008. Not surprisingly, black males were slightly more likely to be incarcerated than white males who had committed the same crimes, a finding familiar from numerous studies across the country.

Here’s the news: Of those juveniles who were diverted out of the court system, the black youth were less likely to be assigned to rehabilitation programs; 87 percent of white males, but only 73 percent of black males, were enrolled in some sort of delinquency prevention or community program. And among those offenders placed on probation, black males were slightly less likely to be referred for “intensive probation,” which includes not only monitoring, but also social services such as addiction counseling, family and individual therapy, vocational education, and anger management training.

In other words, black boys are less likely than white boys to be directed toward programs likely to keep them on the straight and narrow. (Latino males and girls of color experienced similar disparities, though the trend was most pronounced among black males.)

Mark Greenwald, director of research for Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, says the findings from Cochran and Mears are in line with the state’s own internal data. Even as Florida has cut juvenile arrests by 36 percent over the past five years, “Our latest numbers show black kids are less likely to receive diversion and other services,” he says.

Why might this be the case? Cochran and Mears suggest that judges and other court personnel making quick decisions might be swayed by unconscious bias. “The juvenile court is so fascinating, because unlike the adult court, rehabilitation is inherent and explicit in their charge,” Cochran says.”They are supposed to punish, but at the same time, save children and intervene in their life.”

“Are judges actually perceiving that black youth are less amenable to treatment?” he continued. “That those treatments would be a waste of resources on a poor black youth from a troubled community? We need more studies that can somehow tap into perceptions.”

Greenwald posits another theory, which shifts the suspicion of bias onto police and schools: that black youth are more likely to be arrested and charged with little justification, so judges are more inclined to dismiss their cases with no further action. (Indeed, the study found that black juveniles were also more likely to have their charges completely dismissed.) “Sometimes there isn’t enough probable cause to move forward,” he says. “We see a huge number of those cases for African-American youth are ultimately dropped, often cases that start in school” with disciplinary problems.

To reduce juvenile arrests, Florida has expanded a civil citation program for youth who commit a first-time misdemeanor. They are immediately directed toward social services instead of being arrested or referred to court. The state is also developing a training program for law enforcement officials who work with teenagers, says Florida Interim Secretary for Juvenile Justice Christina Daly. “It looks at cultural responsiveness and de-escalation techniques, as well as information about adolescent brain development, to help shepherd their knowledge of the population they’re coming into contact with.”

Yet Daly acknowledges that racial disparities in sentencing remain a problem. Eight circuit courts in Florida are participating in a program that trains probation officers, county attorneys, and judges to use a risk-assessment tool for sentencing juveniles. First, probation officers complete a questionnaire that details the juvenile’s prior contact with law enforcement, history of drug use, academic and behavioral records, mental health problems, quality of friendships, and family background, including whether parents have been incarcerated or are currently able to exert “authority and control” over the child. Depending on the rating the juvenile receives, he is categorized as either at low, moderate, or high risk to reoffend.

Prosecutors and judges are then able to look at a chart showing which sentences -- incarceration, probation, diversion to a community program -- have been proven to lead to the best outcomes for a juvenile at that risk level.

The department hopes to roll this program out statewide within the next two years. “We’ve statistically validated these systems to ensure they are race, gender, and ethnic neutral,” Daly says. “If we use them, we’re making objective decisions.”

A state report showed juveniles whose sentences were handed down according to the sentencing guidelines were half as likely to reoffend within 12 months. Yet black youth were more likely than white youth to receive sentences out of synch with the guidelines. And that matters. For example, males who got lesser sentences than the guidelines suggested -- for example, those who committed a nonviolent felony but were released without being enrolled in probation or a community program -- were 148 percent more likely to reoffend within one year. That suggests the racial sentencing disparities Cochran and Mears identify can lead to higher recidivism rates.

Evidence shows juvenile sentencing guidelines can reduce, though not eradicate, the racial disparities that lead to black males being the most likely teens to be incarcerated and the least likely to receive rehabilitation. Given the relationship between sentencing disparities and reoffending, that would be a step forward for kids of color -- and for taxpayers.