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April 25, 2016 Practice Points

Study on Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests Released

By Jessalyn Schwartz

The D.C.-based research and advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, released a study in April 2016 focusing on the racial disparities in youth arrests and subsequent commitments to secure facilities between 2003 and 2013. While the overall rate of commitment after a finding of delinquency has fallen 47 percent in that period, the study found that these downward trends are not being equally seen across racial lines. Commitment of white/non-Hispanic youth fell by 51 percent, while African-American commitments only fell by 43 percent. In fact, the racial gap between white and black youth committed to detention facilities in America was found to have increased by 15 percent.

In the United States, only 16 percent of youth are African American, yet the number being committed to secure facilities increased in the ten years studied from 38 percent to 40 percent.  In contrast, 56 percent of America's youth are white, while the number incarcerated has fallen from 39 percent to 32 percent between 2003 and 2013. Overall, juvenile justice arrests have declined by 34 percent, but arrests of black youths have actually increased by 24 percent.

Behavior is also not reflected in arrest rates. The report states that white and black youth are as likely to engage in fighting, possess weapons, use and sell illicit substances, steal, and commit status offenses, such as truancy. However, black youths are more likely to be arrested for these offenses and treated harshly in sentencing, causing further involvement with the juvenile justice system. In 2013, African American youth were 129 percent more likely to be arrested than white youth, which is an increase from 85 percent found in 2003. Black offenders are also 19 percent more likely to be committed, up 6 percent from 2003.

The study shows that when looking specifically at racial disparities, the nationwide trend might not be as glaring, but specific states with larger disproportions in their population, show the racial divide surrounding youth arrests and commitments. While the report does not want to detract from the strides made by activists and policymakers in overall juvenile incarceration and arrest rates, it clarifies that further efforts must be made to ensure the same positive impact is made on all youth who interact with our justice system.

Jessalyn Schwartz is with the ABA Children and the Law Advisory Task Force in Boston, Massachusetts.

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