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Juvenile Justice Has Come a Long Way. But Racial Bias Lingers

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Mon, 02/10/2014 - 10:31

A recent documentary is highlighting the issue of racial bias in the juvenile justice system. In reporting a piece for the Connecticut Law Tribune, I learned that Connecticut is widely praised for making great steps in improving its juvenile justice system. But statistics show that, despite those reforms, racial bias hasn't been erased. More kids of color than white kids are sent into the system and sent into the system for longer.

Here's an excerpt of the full piece: 

By most accounts, Connecticut has made tremendous progress in reforming its juvenile justice system. But there's one serious problem remaining: racial disparities in the youths who are sent to juvenile lockups.

That's the thrust of a recent Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network documentary, a production sponsored by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee and paid for with federal funds.

According to the documentary, police are 3.24 times more likely to write incident reports when they find a black juvenile misbehaving than when they have similar encounters with white kids. Latino juveniles are 2.4 times more likely to have incident reports filed about their actions than their caucasian counterparts.

Further, the documentary reported, prosecutors are far more likely to transfer black juveniles charged with serious, Class A and Class B felonies to adult court than their white counterparts. And the state Department of Correction is four times more likely to place a black youth who committed a serious offense in a secure juvenile facility than a white youth, and three times more likely to put a Latino teen in such a facility than a white teen.

The documentary, "The Color of Justice," focuses on data presented in a 2011 report by the state Office of Policy and Management. The report found that racial disparities were present in half of the 18 points in which decisions are made in the juvenile justice system.

"We've … accepted the data and we own it and we're each trying in our separate agencies or venues" to address the issue, said Superior Court Judge Bernadette Conway, the chief administrative judge of the juvenile division.

Cathy Jackman, the independent producer and editor of the documentary, said Connecticut is one of the states considered to be at the forefront of addressing the issue of racial bias in the juvenile justice system.

"I think that the state was actually very courageous in exposing themselves," said Jackman, who noted that while the documentary was government-sponsored, she retained editorial control. "The Office of Policy and Management did not have to reveal these numbers."

Marc Schindler, executive director of the national Justice Policy Institute, said Connecticut has implemented many best practices to reform juvenile justice. For example, the state has aggressively worked to move most 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult court system, increased community-based programming, and reduced its reliance on incarceration when dealing with juvenile lawbreakers.

Connecticut is a "true turn-around story in many respects," Schindler said. "Through the '80s and '90s, Connecticut was known unfortunately for having a quite dysfunctional system for young people who got in trouble with the law." And this was in a state that is one of the wealthiest in the country, he said.

Given the success in improving other aspects of the juvenile justice system, Schindler said he's "optimistic" Connecticut will make progress on racial disparities.

The documentary emphasizes that racial disparities often are not the result of overt prejudice but stem from implicit bias.

"We only use a small portion of our brain consciously," said Conway, the juvenile judge. "When we interact with people we make unconscious, instantaneous judgments we may not be aware of."