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Racial Disparities in Youth Incarceration Persist

February 03, 2021
Josh Rovner
In an era of declining youth incarceration, Black and American Indian youth are still overwhelmingly more likely to be held in custody than their white peers.

In an era of declining youth incarceration, Black and American Indian youth are still overwhelmingly more likely to be held in custody than their white peers.

In ten years, the United States has cut youth incarceration in half. While the reduction is impressive, youth involvement in the juvenile justice system continues to impact youth of color disproportionately.

In every state, Black youth are more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, about five times as likely nationwide. American Indian youth are three times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. For Latinx youth disparities are smaller but still prevalent; Latinx youth are 42 percent more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated.

Nationally, disparities are essentially unchanged from 10 years’ prior for Black and American Indian youth, but represent a 21 percent decrease in incarceration disparities for Latinx youth. In state rankings, New Jersey warrants special mention due to its number one and number three status for highest Black-white and Latinx-white disparities in youth incarceration, respectively.

These disparities are not only caused by differences in offending but also by harsher enforcement and punishment of youth of color. White youth are less likely to be arrested than other teenagers, which is partly attributable to unequal policing and partly to differential involvement in crime.

After arrest, youth of color are more likely to be detained pre-adjudication and committed post adjudication. They are also less likely to be diverted from the system. These patterns hold across a range of offenses.

Advancement of racial justice priorities with youth decarceration efforts has proven elusive. More steps must be taken to invest in youth and communities in order to prevent crime and to protect youth from overly punitive system responses to misbehavior.

Recommendations

  1. Racial impact statements
    States and localities should require the use of racial impact statements to educate policymakers about how changes in sentencing or law enforcement policies and practices might impact racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.
  2. Publish demographic data quarterly
    States and counties should publish demographic data quarterly on the number of incarcerated or justice-system involved youth, including race and ethnicity. The federal government should disseminate this information nationwide.
  3. Invest in communities
    States and localities must invest in communities to strengthen public infrastructures, such as schools and medical and mental health services, with particular focus on accommodating the needs of children of color.

Click here to download the full report.

 
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