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Study: Racism and Over-incarceration Pervade Juvenile Detention

A 2018 study has uncovered a troubling racial-disparity gap in youth confinement.

Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie” was published Feb. 27, 2018, by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonpartisan nonprofit.

The study analyzed data gathered in the 2015 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement to provide what Wendy Sawyer, a senior policy analyst at PPI, described to the media as a “starting point” to consider “how the problems of the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile justice system.”

One of these problems, the study noted, was a racial disparity gap -- non-white youths are 2.7 times more likely than white youths to be imprisoned. This disparity was most profound among blacks and Native Americans.

Forty-two percent of all juvenile offenders are black, although they make up just less than 14% of the overall youth population.

Native-American youth, despite representing less than 1% of the overall population, comprise 1.7% of all juvenile offenders.

While the overall juvenile detention population declined significantly between 1997 and 2015, the racial-disparity gap only decreased by 0.6%. This miniscule decline was driven largely by lower incarceration rates for Hispanic and Asian-American youth.

The study also noted that a significant number of juveniles were incarcerated for relatively minor offenses. Almost 20% had convictions for technical violations, such as a failure to report for community service, while an additional 5% had status offenses, such as underage drinking or truancy.

Nearly 25% of the status offenders were held in “restrictive correctional style types of juvenile facilities,” which often house “hundreds of youths behind razor wire fences where they will be subject to solitary confinement.”

As many as 2,000 juvenile offenders are held for non-trafficking drug offenses.

The report noted that the practice of incarcerating so many youths for non-violent offenses was in sharp conflict with National Institute of Corrections guidance, which states that “only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders” should be subject to detention.

Based on that criteria, PPI researchers concluded that “by our most conservative estimation, almost 17,000 youths (1 in 3) charged with low-level offenses could be released today without great risk to public safety.”

 Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, W. Haywood Burns InstituteNational Institute of Corrections


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