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Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests

April 01, 2016
While youth incarceration has declined sharply over the last decade, racial disparities have actually increased. This report reviews the nationwide and state-by-state status of racial and ethnic disparities in commitments and the likely impact of growing racial disparities in arrests.

Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data available), the rate of youth committed to juvenile facilities after an adjudication of delinquency fell by 47 percent.1)Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2015). “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.” Every state witnessed a drop in its commitment rate, including 19 states where the commitment rates fell by more than half.2)The District of Columbia’s commitment rate increased during these ten years. Despite this remarkable achievement, the racial disparities endemic to the juvenile justice system did not improve over these same 10 years. Youth of color remain far more likely to be committed than white youth. Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure commitment increased by 15%.

Both white youth and youth of color attained substantially lower commitment rates over these 10 years. For white juveniles, the rate fell by 51 percent (140 to 69 per 100,000); for black juveniles, it fell 43 percent (519 to 294 per 100,000). The combined effect was to increase the commitment disparity over the decade. The commitment rate for Hispanic juveniles fell by 52 percent (230 to 111), and the commitment rate for American Indian juveniles by 28 percent (354 to 254).

As of 2013, black juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed as white juveniles, Americans Indian juveniles were more than three times as likely, and Hispanic juveniles were 61 percent more likely.

Another measurement of disproportionate minority confinement is to compare the committed population to the population of American youth.3)Puzzanchera, C., Sladky, A. and Kang, W. (2015). “Easy Access to Juvenile Populations: 1990-2014.” Juveniles are between 10 and 17 years of age. Slightly more than 16 percent of American youth are African American. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of committed juveniles who were African American grew from 38 percent to 40 percent. Roughly 56 percent of all American youth are white (non-Hispanic). Between 2003 and 2013, the percent of committed juveniles who were white fell from 39 percent to 32 percent.4)The remaining commitments were Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other.

As discussed below, growing disparities in arrests have driven the commitment disparities. Between 2003 and 2013, white juveniles arrest rates (already half that of black juveniles) fell by 49 percent while black juveniles arrest rates fell by 31 percent. While other levers in the juvenile justice system (such as processing in juvenile courts) are replete with disparate outcomes, most of those points of contact are no more disparate than they were 10 years prior. The growth in commitment disparities begins with the growth in arrest disparities.

Current racial commitment disparities

African American commitment disparities, 2013

The black/white racial disparity in commitment is calculated by comparing the rate of African American commitments (the frequency of committed African American juveniles divided by the total number of African American juveniles) to the rate of white juveniles commitments.5)Calculations on racial and ethnic disparities are derived from data provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention on a nationwide and statewide level. This report does not attempt to show county-by-county differences in commitments and arrests, an important issue to explore. As states vary in their racial and ethnic disparities, so too do regions within states.

Nationwide, African American juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed to secure placements as were white juveniles. In six states (Utah, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island), the black/white disparity was more than ten-to-one, meaning that African American juveniles were more than 10 times as likely as white juveniles to be committed to secure facilities.

Racial disparities persist both in states with relatively large and relatively small populations of youth of color. However, it is important to note that for states with low numbers of youth of color, modest shifts in commitments among youth of color can have a dramatic impact on ratios.6)For example, New Hampshire’s African American commitment rate (1,846 per 100,000 African American juveniles) is derived from just 21 committed juveniles who were African American. Because disparity is a ratio, even a state with a relatively low rate of African American commitments (such as Connecticut) can still have significant disparities if the white commitment rate is particularly low. Data in this report list commitment rates for each racial and ethnic group along with the attendant disparity.

Figure 1. White and Black Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
Figure 2. Black/White Racial Disparity in Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
black-white commitment disparity
See full data in Appendix A.

Hispanic commitment disparities, 2013

Nationwide, Hispanic youth were 61 percent more likely than white youth to be in placement.7)Data accuracy for Hispanic juveniles is considered to have improved over time, but some caution is warranted.

In 37 states and the District of Columbia, Hispanic youth are more likely to be committed than are white juveniles. In four states (Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New Jersey), the Hispanic/white disparity was more than five-to-one, meaning that Hispanic juveniles were more than five times as likely as white juveniles to be committed.

Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, and Missouri – had no Hispanic/white disparity while nine others — Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Vermont, and West Virginia – had higher rates of white commitments than Hispanic commitments.

Figure 3. White and Hispanic Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
Figure 4. Hispanic/White Racial Disparity in Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
4 map hispanic-white commitment disparity
See full data in Appendix B.

American Indian commitment disparities, 2013

State-by-state analysis of American Indian youth is hampered by their small number and attendant small percentage of the population in many states. Roughly 90 percent of American Indian juveniles live in just 26 states. In 24 states, less than 1 percent of youth are American Indian.

Nationwide, American Indian youth were nearly four times as likely as white youth to be committed. In three states (Minnesota, Illinois and Vermont), the American Indian/white disparity is more than ten-to-one, meaning that American Indian youth are more than 10 times as likely as white juveniles to be committed.

Among the 26 states with a significant proportion (more than one percent of the total population) of American Indian youth, only New Mexico has no American Indian/white disparity.

Figure 5. White and American Indian Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
Figure 6. American Indian/White Racial Disparity in Commitment Rates per 100,000 Youth, 2013
6 map am indian-white commitment disparity
See full data in Appendix C.

Commitment disparities, 2003 versus 2013

Equally distressing to the existence of racial and ethnic disparities is their persistence. Under the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, since 1988 states have been required to address disparities in confinement.8)In 1992, this law was expanded to require that measurements of disparity be taken at all points of contact in the system rather than just the point of confinement. Those disparities persist today, having remained constant for Hispanic youth while growing for African American and American Indian youth over this ten-year period.

Figure 7. Changes in U.S. Youth Commitment Disparities, 2003-2013

 

Racial disparities grew nationally, but not in all states

Trends in African American to White Commitment Disparities

In 2003, African American youth were 3.7 times as likely as white youth to be committed; by 2013, that ratio had grown to 4.3, a 15 percent increase in the disparity. Between 2003 and 2013, 33 states and the District of Columbia had higher black/white commitment disparities than 10 years before, and 17 states saw decreases or no changes.

Trends in Hispanic to White Commitment Disparities

In 2003, Hispanic youth were 61 percent more likely than white youth to be committed; by 2013, that ratio was unchanged. Four states – Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, and Vermont — had no Hispanic youth in commitment as of the day of the one-day census in 2013. In nine other states – Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, and West Virginia – Hispanic youth were less likely or equally likely to be committed as were white youth.

Between 2003 and 2013, 26 states and the District of Columbia saw increases in their Hispanic/white commitment disparity; 6 states saw no change, and 18 states had a decreased disparity.

Trends in American Indian to White Commitment Disparities

In 2003, American Indian youth were two-and-a-half times (2.5) as likely as white youth to be committed; by 2013, that ratio increased by nearly 50 percent to 3.7. Seventeen states had no American Indian youth in commitment as of the day of the one-day census in 2013 and thus no disparity. In Texas and New Mexico, American Indian youth were less likely or equally likely to be committed as were white youth.

Between 2003 and 2013, 28 states had increasing American Indian/white disparities; 22 states and the District of Columbia saw decreases or no changes.

Overview of disparity changes, 2003-2013

Fourteen states saw increased racial and ethnic disparities between white juveniles and three minority groups: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Only four states, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, decreased their disparities among all three.

Disparity at the point of arrest feeds commitment disparities

Juvenile arrest rates fell 34 percent from 2003 to 2013 with roughly equivalent drops across major categories of offenses. This drop partly explains the 47 percent decrease in juvenile commitments: with fewer juveniles being arrested, fewer were on a path that could lead to secure placement in juvenile facilities. That the drop in commitments outpaced the drop in arrests suggests the impact of policy and practice initiatives; arrests that would have led to incarceration in earlier years may have been resulted in diversion to alternatives such as probation, counseling, or low-level sanctions in the form of community service.

Despite few differences in delinquent behaviors or status offending, African American juveniles throughout this period have much more likely to be arrested; moreover, the significant arrest disparity grew by 24 percent9)Puzzanchera, C. and Hockenberry, S. (2015). National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook. Developed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.. Researchers have found few group differences between youth of color and white youth regarding the most common categories of youth arrests10)Lauritsen, J.L. (2005). Racial and ethnic differences in juvenile offending. In D.F. Hawkins and K. Kempf-Leonard (Eds.), Our Children, Their Children: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Differences in Juvenile Justice (pp. 83-104). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.. While behavioral differences exist, black and white youth are roughly as likely to get into fights, carry weapons, steal property, use and sell illicit substances, and commit status offenses, like skipping school.11)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Accessed on January 26, 2016. Those similarities are not reflected in arrest rates; black teenagers are far more likely than their white peers to be arrested across a range of offenses, a vital step toward creating the difference in commitments. Black youth are more likely than their white peers to commit violent offenses12)Lauritsen, J.L. (2005). Racial and ethnic differences in juvenile offending. In D.F. Hawkins and K. Kempf-Leonard (Eds.), Our Children, Their Children: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Differences in Juvenile Justice (pp. 83-104). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press., but those offenses comprise less than 5 percent of all juvenile arrests. Their infrequency means that differences in violent offending do not explain the scope of racial disparities in commitments.

Table 1. Changes in Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youth Commitments, 2003-2013
State B:W H:W AI:W
United States 15% -2% 46%
Alabama 75% 7% Unchanged
Alaska 106% Unchanged 44%
Arizona 68% 11% 190%
Arkansas 20% 80%
California 30% 26% -10%
Colorado 48% 14% 19%
Connecticut 320% 365% -100%
Delaware -13% -68% Unchanged
Dist. of Columbia 513% 394% Unchanged
Florida 25% 62% 1227%
Georgia 36% -23% -100%
Hawaii -58% 12% Unchanged
Idaho -12% -28% -24%
Illinois -16% 74% 1079%
Indiana -12% -19% 37%
Iowa 8% Unchanged 64%
Kansas 12% 44% 60%
Kentucky -23% 194% Unchanged
Louisiana 51% -37% -100%
Maine 255% -100% 46%
Maryland 66% 4% -100%
Massachusetts 33% 46% -100%
Michigan 73% 5% 7%
Minnesota 45% -18% 56%
Mississippi 79% -100% -100%
Missouri -7% -28% -100%
Montana 26% -20% 13%
Nebraska 5% -8% -21%
Nevada 47% 37% 7%
New Hampshire 897% 517% Unchanged
New Jersey 50% 53% -100%
New Mexico -41% -6% -51%
New York 4% -24% 83%
North Carolina 189% 292% 225%
North Dakota -6% -53% -8%
Ohio 8% 14% 169%
Oklahoma 105% 27% 9%
Oregon Unchanged 45% 73%
Pennsylvania -2% -1% -100%
Rhode Island 52% 211% -100%
South Carolina -23% 1149%
South Dakota -29% -50% 15%
Tennessee 55% 59%
Texas 4% -15% -40%
Utah 879% 79% 205%
Vermont Unchanged Unchanged
Virginia 28% -22% Unchanged
Washington 1% 72% 50%
West Virginia -20% -70% 24%
Wisconsin 82% 83% 93%
Wyoming -72% 13% 102%
See full data in Appendix D.13)OJJDP data for Hispanic commitments in New Mexico in 2003 may be in error. The 2003 New Mexico disparity is based on the author’s calculation on the assumption that New Mexico’s Hispanic youth were miscategorized as “other” in the 2003 data set.

Juvenile placement ought to be reserved for those who pose the greatest risk to public safety, but national data show confinement is still used for less serious offenses. In 2003, 76 percent of all committed juveniles had been adjudicated on a nonviolent offense; by 2013, that proportion had barely changed and is now 74 percent14)Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2015). “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.”.

The Relative Rate Index (RRI), a formula that OJJDP uses, is one method of tracking disparity. It is a ratio of the rate of minority juvenile interaction with the justice system at a particular contact point as compared with white juveniles’ contact. An RRI for arrest of 2.0 means that the minority in question is twice as likely as a white youth to be arrested whereas an RRI of 1.0 would reflect no disproportionate minority contact. Table 2 shows that black youth are 2.3 times as likely to be arrested as white youth for all delinquent offenses15)Puzzanchera, C. and Hockenberry, S. (2015). National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook. Developed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.. They are disproportionately arrested for all major offense categories.

Such disparities in arrest have grown worse over this 10 year period. The RRI of 2.3 for arrest disparities in 2013 was 1.8 ten years prior.

Racial disparities grow with almost every step of the juvenile justice system but start with arrests. Among those juveniles who are arrested, black youth are more likely to have their cases referred to juvenile court. Among those cases referred to court, black youth are more likely to have their cases heard (and not diverted pre-adjudication). Among those cases that are adjudicated, black youth are less likely to receive probation and more likely to be committed to secure placement in a juvenile facility. The arrest disparity is the entrance to a maze with fewer exits for African American youth than their white peers.

Table 2. Arrest Rate (per 100,000 Juveniles), 2013
White Black  RRI
All delinquent offenses 32.2 73.8 2.3
Person 5.1 18.3 3.6
Violent offenses 1.1 5.8 5.3
Simple assault 4.0 12.5 3.1
Property offenses 9.3 23.5 2.5
Property crime index 7.1 19.4 2.7
Other property 2.2 4.1 1.9
Drug law violations 4.1 6.0 1.5
Public order offenses 13.6 26.0 1.9
Figure 8. Black/White Youth Arrest Disparities, 2003-2013

The centrality of disparity at the point of arrest to commitment disparities

Racial and ethnic disparities are a pervasive attribute of the juvenile justice system. Along with disparities in which youth get transferred to the adult system, commitments are the residue of disparities that grow at each stage of the justice system.

There are sharp limitations to this level of analysis: while the National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook16)Puzzanchera, C. and Hockenberry, S. (2015). National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook. Developed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. aggregates data for African American youth, white youth, Asian youth and American Indian youth, there are no Hispanic-specific data for disparities at points of contact other than pre- and post-adjudication placements. Moreover, the black/white disparity is probably understated. Because most Hispanic youth are white, Hispanic youth in contact with the justice system are mostly categorized as white, increasing the number of white youth and artificially decreasing the disparity between white and black youth.

While disparities in arrests have grown increased, the data also reveal the existence of disparities at other points of contact with the juvenile justice system (see Table 3). Black youth are more likely to be arrested, and are then treated with disproportionate harshness as they go deeper into the juvenile justice system.

The 2013 disparities, shown in Table 3, look largely similar to the 2003 disparities with two exceptions: arrests and the decision to commit.

  • In 2013, African American youth were 129 percent more likely to be arrested than white youth. That reflects an increase from 2003, when African American youth were 85 percent more likely to be arrested than white youth.
  • Among youth adjudicated delinquent, black youth were 19 percent more likely to be committed – an increase from the 13 percent disparity in 2003.

The pattern is clear: while disparities pervade the juvenile justice system, it is the disparities at the front of the system – arrests – are both where disparities are largest and the point at the system at which disparities grew between 2003 and 2013.

Table 3. Youth Outcomes by Race, 2013
Black juveniles  White juveniles
Out of every 10,000 teenagers 738 arrests 322 arrests
Out of every 1,000 arrests 934 referrals to juvenile court 806 cases referrals to juvenile court
Out of every 1,000 arrests 217 diverted away from formal court processing 298 diverted away from formal court processing
Out of every 1,000 cases referred to juvenile court 249 detained prior to adjudication 186 detained prior to adjudication
Out of every 1,000 cases tried in juvenile court 511 adjudicated delinquent 518 adjudicated delinquent
Out of every 1,000 juveniles adjudicated delinquent 611 received probation 648 received probation
Out of every 1,000 juveniles adjudicated delinquent 272 commitments 228 commitments

Conclusion

The existence of racial and ethnic disparities is a disturbing feature of the juvenile justice system. Over the 10-year period in this report, disparities for African American youth and American Indian youth have grown even as overall indicators, such as total arrests and the total numbers of youth in placement, have fallen. These trends suggest that the successful reforms that have led to fewer overall arrests and fewer commitments have not been shared equally among all youth and, in fact, are benefiting white youth the most.

Further study is needed to discern the extent to which growing arrest disparities reflect disparate treatment of youth of color within localities or whether they reflect changing standards in different geographic regions within a state. Racially and ethnicity segregated housing mean that, in most states, youth of color are concentrated in cities and inner suburbs while white youth are more likely to live in suburbs and rural areas.

As such, an increased racial disparity might reflect sharply decreased arrests in rural counties and a smaller decrease in urbanized counties. What is clear, however, is that states should not ignore the ways that disparate arrest rates impact the deep end of the system.

Along with policing reform to respond to youthful behavioral issues without relying on high levels of arrests of youth of color, other actors in the juvenile justice system can decrease racial disparities in commitments. Prosecutors’ and judges’ decisions have not caused the increase in commitment disparities, but they also have not mitigated them.

The public and policymakers can celebrate the sharp drops in overall juvenile incarceration and a falling arrest rate. However, it is clear that these changes are not impacting communities of color at the same pace as white communities.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

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