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Reflecting on the Failure to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System Burns Institute 2008

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Reflections on the Failure to
Reduce Racial & Ethnic Disparities
in the Juvenile Justice System


W. Haywood Burns Institute


Reflections on the Failure
to Reduce Racial &
Ethnic Disparities in the
Juvenile Justice System


Executive Director,
W. Haywood Burns Institute

Law and Policy Analyst,
W. Haywood Burns Institute
Communications Director,
W. Haywood Burns Institute

About the Authors:
James Bell is the Founder and Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI). He
is a national leader in devising and implementing strategies to reduce the disproportionality
of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. Prior to founding the BI, Bell representing
incarcerated youth as a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco for more than
20 years. He is the recipient of awards including the Livingstone Hall Award for Outstanding
Juvenile Advocacy from the American Bar Association and Advocate of the Year from the U.S.
Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
Laura John Ridolfi is the Law and Policy Analyst for the BI. She provides technical assistance to
BI sites in analyzing whether and to what extent policies and practices contribute to racial and
ethnic disparities in juvenile justice systems. She also assists in developing local strategies
to reduce disparities. Prior to the BI, Ridolfi worked for several juvenile and criminal justice
organizations and was a Fulbright Fellow in Kenya, where she conducted original research on
the juvenile justice system. Ridolfi is a recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Ridolfi also sits on the Disproportionate Minority Contact Subcommittee for
the State of California’s Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Anna Testa at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Christina Gilbert at Northeastern
University School of Law, Emily Hobbins at the Golden Gate University School of Law, Kai
Hutson, James Williams at Northwestern University Law School and Joan Chun conducted research for this report. Special thanks to Geoffrey K. Ward and Miroslava Chávez-García.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute
180 Howard Street Suite 320
San Francisco, CA 94105
415.321.4140 fax

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©2008, The W. Haywood Burns Institute, San Francisco, California



















ur institute is named for the late W. Haywood Burns, who was a
beacon of light for all who believe the battle for human rights and
justice can be won through activism, humility and dedication.

W. Haywood Burns served as general counsel to Martin Luther King’s
Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 and was a founder of the National Conference
of Black Lawyers. He helped defend the Attica Rebellion prisoners and others W. Haywood Burns
struggling for self-determination. He served as dean of the City University of
New York (CUNY) School of Law. He died in a car accident while attending the
International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa.
There is no more fitting a person in whose memory the Burns Institute works. It is
through the example of W. Haywood Burns that we continue to advocate for orphans of opportunity — youth of color who make up almost 70 percent of this nation’s incarcerated youth.
To date, the Burns Institute has worked in more than 30 jurisdictions and achieved significant results in reducing disparities. Through our programs, services and national network,
Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY), we provide support to organizations that offer
alternatives to incarceration for youth of color, and arm jurisdictions with the statistics, methods and staff training to engage in policy work and strengthen disparities reduction efforts.
Over the past five years, we have become intrigued by the difficulty and intractability
associated with disparities reduction in the juvenile justice system. We have watched in disbelief as the national numbers of youth of color confined skyrocket. Moreover, through our work,
we have found that measurable results require a thorough examination of race, ethnicity, public safety and confinement. We are proud to release our first report, which offers reflections on
the historical legacy and current issues involved with working to reduce disparities.
This publication is the first in a series to be released in 2009 that will endeavor to
comprehensively address all aspects of reducing disparities in the juvenile justice system. The
release of this first report comes on the 20th anniversary of a Congressional mandate that directed States to address the overrepresentation of youth of color in juvenile justice systems.
It also coincides with the historic election of the 44th United States President, Barack Obama.
In the air lingers a spirit of hope, possibility and a change. Also, as expected, sweeping
statements are being made that hint to the idea of a “post-racial” America. But advocates are
reminding the public that, in the words of Colin Powell, “There are still a lot of black kids who
don’t see that dream there for them.” For youth of color coming in contact with the justice
system, nothing will change unless we continue to advocate for equity.
Beginning today, we must stop lingering on the question, “What should we do about disparities?” and instead identify the best practices that are proven to actively combat the issue
— effectively reducing racial and ethnic disparities state by state, jurisdiction by jurisdiction.
We should settle for nothing less.
-James Bell
Executive Director
W. Haywood Burns Institute




onight, more than 90,000 youth in this nation will sleep somewhere other than
their homes, in the custody of the juvenile justice system.1 For Latino youth, the
chance of this occurring is more than double that of White youth. For Black youth, the
chance is more than five times that of White youth. United States Department of Justice data reveals such glaring disproportionality is reflected in nearly every state. Disturbingly,
these inequities extend far beyond higher rates of confinement for youth of color.
Youth of color are also arrested, charged and incarcerated more than White youth for
similar conduct, and are disproportionately represented at every decision-making point in the
juvenile justice system. Studies show this disadvantage increases as they move deeper through
the system.2 Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, youth of color are incarcerated at rates
that cannot be explained by crime alone.
But little substantive action has been taken to transform this nationwide crisis of
Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC) in the two decades since the United States
Congress first mandated that States “address” the overrepresentation of youth of color in
juvenile justice systems. We at the W. Haywood Burns Institute
(BI) believe this 20th anniversary of the mandate is an opportune
We must push for
time to reflect on the legacy of racial and ethnic disparities in the
juvenile justice system, and to analyze the barriers that continue
Without a sense
to obstruct the reduction of disparities.

of urgency we are

In 2009, we will publish reports that explore in depth the
doomed to be fortools, technologies, insights and strategies that the BI has utilized
ever trapped in
to help local jurisdictions reduce disparities in their juvenile
a cyclical debate
justice systems. In this first publication of our series, we examine
about how to adthe antecedents that continue to influence the juvenile justice
system. We begin by outlining early juvenile justice systems and
dress DMC.
their approach toward youth of color, and then examine DMC and
its perceived causes. We next analyze the federal mandates that have largely failed to reduce
entrenched racial and ethnic disparities in the modern juvenile justice system.
We conclude this report by suggesting that the action Congress has called for since
1988 has yielded few tangible results. We argue that the pervasive problem of racial and ethnic
disparities throughout the nation’s juvenile justice systems could be effectively confronted with
strengthened federal legislation to provide the structure, direction and resources necessary to
support jurisdictions that demonstrate political will and a strategic approach.
We must push for transformation. Without a sense of urgency we are doomed to be
forever trapped in a cyclical debate about how to address DMC, thus fulfilling Friedrich Hegel’s
maxim that unendingly adoring the question overwhelms the search for answers.
Now is the time for long-awaited and measurable change.

1 Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., & Kang, W. (2005). Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) Databook. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from
2 The National Council on Crime and Delinquency. (2007). And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Youth of Color in the
Justice System. Retrieved from




acial and ethnic inequity is one of the most intransigent problems found today within
juvenile justice systems. But its persistence is no accident. The problem existed long
before the U.S. Department of Justice first acknowledged it on a national scale in 1988
with an amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). It
was institutionalized within the earliest penal system so profoundly that it continues to influence
which youth are valued and which are neglected. We believe those who seek to advance disparities
reduction work today should first understand its underlying antecedents and the power they wield.

Disparate Treatment in Detention
From the earliest days of our nation, segregationist policies dictated that the detention
of youth of color would be different than that of White youth coming into contact with the penal
system for the same categories of offense. When the nation’s first youth detention facility, the New
York House of Refuge, established a “colored” section in 1834,3 the exclusion of Black children from
rehabilitation services was rationalized as a waste of resources and a debasement of Whites.

New York House of Refuge circa 18254

The superintendent of the Philadelphia House of Refuge during this early period explained
the exclusion of Black children from rehabilitation services on the basis that “it would be degrading
to the [W]hite children to associate with beings given up to public scorn.”5 In Mississippi, when a
legislator proposed opening a reform school for Black children, the bill was defeated on the grounds
that “it was no use trying to reform a Negro.”6 The prevailing sentiment was that “[W]hite taxpayers
refused to ‘waste’ money on the needs of ‘incorrigible’ young [B]lacks.”7
Such notions, though far less blatant today, still have currency in the policies and practices
that directly impact the prevalence of disparities in juvenile justice systems. It is still common for
3 Span, C.M. (2002). Educational and Social Reforms for African American Juvenile Delinquents in 19th Century New York City
and Philadelphia. The Journal of Negro Education. 71(3) 110.
4 Lithograph, New York Historical Society, negative 20820. Online at
5 Mennel, R.M. (1973) Thorns and Thistles: Juvenile Delinquents in the United States, 1825-1940. Hanover, New Hampshire:
University Press of New England. 17. As cited by Ward, G. K. (2001). Color lines of Social Control: Juvenile Justice Administration in a Racialized Social System, 1825-2000. Dissertation Abstracts International. 62(10). 47.
6 Oshinsky, D.M. (1996). Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York, New York: Free
Press. As cited by Ward, G. K. 47.
7 Ibid.


White youth to be systematically offered diversion and probation while youth of color are sent to
confinement and other out-of-home placements for similar conduct.8
Differential detention and resources are just the beginning of a legacy that includes disparate
treatment, a lack of legal recourse and disproportionate rates of confinement. Throughout the
1800’s, the exclusion of Black youth from White juvenile facilities often resulted in their placement
in adult prisons. In 1850, approximately 50 percent of youth under 16 in the Providence, RI, jail were
Black, 60 percent of the youth at the Maryland penitentiary in Baltimore were Black, and all youth
in the Washington D.C. penitentiary were Black — despite the regions’ largely White populations.9
Black children were also incarcerated younger than White children, had fewer opportunities for
advancement upon discharge, and suffered a disproportionately higher death rate.10
The overrepresentation of youth of color in the early penal system served as a convenient
solution for labor needs in the post-Civil War South. A significant reason for opening the Baltimore
House of Reformation for Black Children in Maryland was “the need for agricultural labor through
[the] state, as well as the great want of competent house servants.”11 The demand for cheap labor
after the Civil War was quickly satisfied through widespread arrests of Blacks for minor violations
under Jim Crow laws to fuel “convict leasing,” which is described by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
David Oshinsky as “worse than slavery.” This practice would continue through the 20th century.

Boys and men in cell, Birmingham, AL12

Punishment in a forced labor camp, Georgia circa 193013

The judicial system was “retooled to provide cheap forced labor to mines, farms, timber
camps, turpentine makers, railroad builders and entrepreneurs. Tens of thousands of men, the vast
majority of them [B]lack, found themselves pulled back into slavery.”14 In a common arrangement,
8 The National Council on Crime and Delinquency. (2007). And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Youth of Color in the Justice
System. Retrieved from
9 Curry, L.P. (1981). The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of The Dream. Chicago, Illinois: University of
Chicago Press. 115-116.
10 Frey, C.P. (1981). The House of Refuge for Colored Children. The Journal of Negro History. 66(1). 17.
11 Frey, C.P. 15.
12 Blackmon, D.A. (2008) Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War
II. Doubleday. Online at Archived at the Birmingham Public Library and Archives.
13 Blackmon, D.A. Owned by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
14 Blackmon, D.A. (2008) Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War
II. Doubleday. Online at		


a local sheriff and a turpentine operator in desperate need of men “made up a list of some eight
Negroes known to both as good husky fellows, capable of a fair days’ work. The sheriff was promised
five dollars plus expenses for each Negro he ‘landed.’”15 This practice did not spare young children;
on the contrary, their vulnerability made them a target. An 1890 census analysis by scholar and
author W.E.B. Du Bois found that more than 18 percent of all Black prisoners were juveniles.16 Prison
was a horrific place for children to be confined. A report by journalist Ida B. Wells on the convict
leasing system found starvation, disease, rape and whippings were part of the daily experience.17
As Black youth were experiencing disparate treatment within the burgeoning penal system,
Native tribes not yet displaced by federal policies were attempting to maintain such restorative
justice practices as family meetings and talking circles as discipline. But in 1885 Congress passed the
Major Crimes Act, essentially obliterating centuries-old restorative justice approaches to dispute
resolution and replaced them with a punitive model that persists today on and around Indian
reservations. Lengthy labor and confinement in prison became punishment for Native youth.18

Lakota boys before boarding school

The same Lakota boys afterward19

The federal government established Indian boarding schools across the country and handed
their operation over to missionaries who carried out the prevailing mantra, “Kill the Indian, Save
the Man,” at harsh work-camp institutions meant to “civilize” the students.20 Assimilation to Eurocentric social mores was enforced and the practice of cultural traditions and beliefs were punished
harshly.21 Widespread cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse at the schools have been well
documented, but never officially addressed by the U.S. government. Their impact reverberates
to this day as new generations of Native youth are attempting to relearn languages and tradition
circumvented by the forced isolation and assimilation of their grandparents or parents.

15 Oshinsky, D.M. (1996). Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York, New York:
Free Press. As cited by Ward, G. K. (2001) Color lines of Social control: Juvenile justice administration in a racialized social
system, 1825-2000. Dissertation Abstracts International. 62(10). 3582-A.
16 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1904). Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans: A Social Study Made By Atlanta University, Under the Patronage of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund. Atlanta, Georgia: Atlanta University Press. Cited in Perry, T.E., &
Davis,-Maye, D. (2007). Bein’ Womanish: Womanist Efforts in Child Saving During the Progressive Era: The Founding of Mt. Meigs Reformatory. Journal of Women and Social Work. 22(2). 213.
17 Wells, I.B. (1893). The Convict Lease System. The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. 5. Retrieved from
18 Poupart, J., (2005). Searching For Justice: American Indian Perspectives on Disparities in Minnesota Criminal Justice
System. University of Minnesota Duluth. American Indian Policy Center.
19 Online at	
20 Churchill, W. (2004) Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools. City
Lights Publishers. 	
21 Sharpes, D.K. (1979). Federal Education for the American Indian. The Journal of American Indian Education. 19(1). Retrieved from


Ironically, as many juvenile justice professionals are now pushing for a return to restorative
justice practices based on traditional tribal models, Native youth continue to suffer the fallout of
centuries-long genocide and occupation. They still have less access to services and are granted
disproportionately harsher sanctions including secure confinement and transfers to the adult criminal
system, and receive little or no court intervention.22

Inequity in Juvenile Courts
The problems that many juvenile advocates confront today were present even in the
earliest days of the juvenile court. Just before the turn of the century, Jane Addams and other child
advocates of the Hull House established the first juvenile court, in Chicago, IL. From its inception,
Black children represented a greater percentage of the court case load than their overall population
and were substantially underrepresented in the agencies and services contracted to assist them.23
According to the account of a local chief probation officer during this early period, “[T]he
difficulty of providing adequate care for the dependent and neglected colored children constitutes
one of the greatest problems with which the court has to deal. The situation is complicated by a
lack of resources in the community comparable with those available for white children in the same
circumstances. Practically no institutions are to be found in the community to which this group of
children may be admitted.”24

Black juvenile court; Memphis, TN25

White juvenile court; Memphis, TN26


In addition to receiving unequal treatment in the fledgling court system, Black children were
also left unprotected from the retributive mob justice and lynchings frequented upon the Black
population.27 The brutal murder of 17-year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, TX, is among the more
shocking accounts. In 1916, within minutes of receiving a sentence of death by hanging, dozens of
spectators seized and attacked Jesse with clubs, shovels and bricks. He was stripped and dragged
to the lawn in front of City Hall, where a crowd of thousands prepared a bonfire beneath a tree. He
was immersed in oil, raised onto the tree and lowered into the fire. Spectators cut off fingers and
22 Arya, N. & Rolnick, A.C. A Tangled Web of Justice: American Indian and Alaska Native Youth in Federal, State and Tribal
Justice Systems. Race and Ethnicity Series, Volume 1. Washington, DC: Campaign for Youth Justice.
23 Ward, G. K. (2001) Color lines of Social control: Juvenile justice administration in a racialized social system, 1825-2000. Dissertation Abstracts International. 62(10). 3582-A.82-83.
24 Ibid.
25 Kelley, Florence. (1914) “A Burglar Four years Old in the Memphis Juvenile Court. The Survey. 32(12). 318-19. Available for
download online from	
26 Ibid.
27 Gabbidon, S.L. & Greene, H.T. (2005). Race and Crime. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. 14.


toes from the corpse as souvenirs.28

The murder of Jesse Washington in Waco, TX29

The World-War II Era
In the decades that followed, the nation emerged as an industrial power and cities were
overcome with the social problems of rapid urban growth. Police forces increased in size and influence
in order to maintain the ideals of civil society. Police were given wide discretion regarding referrals
to juvenile justice systems, shifting their role from community protection to crime suppression.30
Factors such as offense, attitude and cooperativeness began to influence arrest decisions.31
Historian David B. Wolcott found that in 1940, the Los Angeles Police Department was arresting
a disproportionate proportion of youth of color. “Latinos constituted 32 percent of all boys arrested
by the LAPD, as opposed to an estimated 8 percent of the city’s population,” Wolcott reported.
“Blacks similarly were 12 percent of boys arrested, in comparison to 4 percent of the population.
In short, by 1940, law enforcement used arrests predominately as a mechanism to regulate boys
who were darker skinned and — allegedly — more often criminal.”32

Nearly seven decades later, disproportionality at
the point of arrest
remains significant in Los Angeles County, and in
many other jurisdictions across
the country.

Nearly seven decades later, disproportionality at the point of arrest
remains significant in Los Angeles County, and in many other jurisdictions
across the nation. In 2007, Black youth in Los Angeles County were
arrested 3.5 times more often than White youth, and Latino youth were
arrested 1.4 times as often as White youth, according to data collected
by the California Department of Justice. In the 1940’s, as still seen today,
increasing arrests of youth of color led to an overrepresentation of Latinos
in Los Angeles detention facilities. Then, mono-lingual youth serving time
at the California State Reform School in Whittier were given a battery of
tests in English. Based on the results, school officials labeled more than 60
percent of Latino youth as “feeble-minded” or “unable to develop beyond

28 Bernstein, P. (2006). The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP. College Station,
Texas: Texas A&M University Press.
29 Online at	
30 Wolcott, D. (2001). “The Cop Will Get You”: The Police and Discretionary Juvenile Justice, 1890-1940. Journal of Social
History. 35(2). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University. 356-357.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid.


the intellectual level of an average 12-year old.” Not surprisingly, Latino wards were responsible
for the greatest percentage of escapes from the institution. Those caught fleeing were subjected to
harsh penalties by school officials.33
Sometimes, boys in solitary confinement were even forced to wear a device called the
“Oregon Boot,” also referred to as the “Gardner Shackle” after its inventor, Oregon State Penitentiary
Warden J.C. Gardner. Wearing the five to 28 pound shackles “for extended periods of time caused
extreme physical damage. Inmates would be bedridden for weeks at a time in extreme pain. The
Gardner Shackle became known as a man-killer to the prisoners who wore them.”34

Oregon Boot35

Disproportionality Then and Now
During the 1940’s, researcher Mary Huff Diggs surveyed juvenile courts across the country
and articulated for the first time what is now widely known as “disproportionality.”
In her review of 53 courts across the country, Diggs reported, “It is found that Negro children
are represented in a much larger proportion of the delinquency cases than they are in the general
population…An appreciably larger percent of the Negro children came in contact with the courts at
an earlier age than was true with the [W]hite children.” Diggs continued, “Cases of Negro boys were
less frequently dismissed than were [W]hite boys. Besides, they were committed to an institution or
referred to an agency or individual much more frequently than were [W]hite boys.”36
It is important to recount this history to fully understand the entrenchment of racial and
ethnic disparities in today’s juvenile justice system. In its early history, the inequitable treatment
of youth of color in the juvenile justice system was the result of intentional and blatant race-based
policies. Today, our policies are race-neutral, but remain covertly steeped in the same legacy of
structural racism. Two-thirds of all youth in public detention facilities today are youth of color —
though they represent only 39 percent of the overall youth population — who are still treated more
harshly even when charged with the same offense as White youth.
We next examine the perceptions that fuel a culture of complacency, creating philosophical
and structural obstacles to disparities reduction.

33 Chavez-Garcia, M. (2006). Youth, Evidence, and Agency: Mexican and Mexican American Youth at the Whittier State School,
1890-1920. Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies. 31(2). University of California Regents. 55-83.
34 Oregon Department of Corrections.	

35 Permission from Oregon Department of Corrections.	
36 Diggs, M.H. (1940). The Problems and Needs of Negro Youth as Revealed by Delinquency and Crime Statistics. The Journal
of Negro Education. The Negro Adolescent and His Education. 9(3). 313-316.




ver the past 20 years, juvenile justice professionals, academics and policy makers have
proffered several theories to explain the unconscionably high levels of disproportionality
in juvenile justice systems across the country. Many have asserted that DMC is inevitable
because youth of color commit more crimes. Others have suggested that poverty, poor
family situations or a lack of educational opportunities lead to DMC. All such theories have a common
thread — that disproportionality is caused by the youth, their families or society at large and is not
within the control of the juvenile justice system or its related partners.
Much of the literature about the causes of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile
justice system is focused primarily on whether the differential system-processing of youth of color,
differential levels of offending in communities of color, or a combination of the two, contribute most
to disproportionality. But such debate does little to move the field toward successful interventions.37
In local jurisdictions, stakeholders are often paralyzed by the breadth and complexity of these
proposed theories. Consequently, stakeholder groups tasked with reducing racial and ethnic
disparities often accept the notion that the problem is too great to impact. Many concede that
addressing DMC requires the seemingly impossible task of solving the macro-level social issues that
have negatively impacted poor communities and communities of color for centuries.
It is well accepted that poverty and related issues outside the control of juvenile justice
decision-makers can contribute to delinquent behavior and youth involvement in the justice system.38
However, the examination cannot end there. Too often, juvenile justice stakeholders focus on the
extrajudicial factors of DMC instead of using data to critically investigate whether internal juvenile
justice policies and practices are contributing to disproportionality.
In our 2009 publications, the BI will detail the interventions that have achieved measurable
results in reducing racial and ethnic disparities, including the use of data and a focus on juvenile
justice decision-making and policy mandates that disparately affect
youth of color in the system. For now, we will discuss the myth that
Too often, juvenile
disproportionality can be explained by higher levels of criminality.
justice stakeholders
Namely, some analysts believe disproportionality is the consequence
accept the myth that
of youth of color committing more crime; that the overrepresentation
focus on the extrajuis an appropriate system response to offending youth because, as
dicial factors of DMC widely believed, “If you do the crime, you do the time.”

instead of using data
to critically investigate whether internal
juvenile justice policies and practices are
contributing to disproportionality.

However, research indicates this is not always true, and that
one factor correlated with this differential system response is the
youth’s race or ethnicity. Youth of color receive more severe sanctions
than White youth even when charged with the same category of
offense. The most consistent example of this can be found in drug
charges. Self-reports of drug use indicate that White youth and youth
of color use drugs at the same rate.39 Yet, youth of color come into
contact with the justice system more often and with more severe
consequences for drug offenses than White youth.

37 Piquero, A.R. (2008). Disproportionate Minority Contact. The Future of Children. 18(2). 59-79.
38 Johnson, O. (2007) Disparity Rules. 107 Columbia Law Review.
39 �����������������������������������������������
Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., & Kang, W. (2005). Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) Databook. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from	


In 2003, for example, Black youth represented only 25 percent of the total youth nationwide
adjudicated delinquent for drug offenses. But they represented a much larger margin of the youth
sent away from their families into residential placement, 40 percent.40
In 2004, White youth represented
73 percent of total youth adjudicated
delinquent for drug offenses. But they
were provided far more opportunities for
rehabilitation than Black youth. White
youth represented 58 percent of youth
sent to out-of-home placement and 75
percent of youth who received probation.
In contrast, Black youth represented only
25 percent of total youth adjudicated
delinquent for drug offenses. But they
represented 40 percent of those sent to
out-of-home placement, and a slim 22
percent whose case resulted in probation.41
When reviewing States’ assessments of the current status of DMC, a survey showed that 32 of
44 states found evidence of ethnic or racial differences in juvenile justice system decision-making
that was unaccounted for by differential criminal activity.42 Moreover, a recent review of studies on
disproportionality found that the effects of race and ethnicity on juvenile justice decision-making
do not reflect overt bias, but rather a subtle indirect impact. The review found that while the
effects may not be as influential as legal factors, “[T]he cumulative
effect across decision-making stages work to the disadvantage of
Forward movement is
minority youth.”43

obstructed by the constant and misdirected
citation of extrajudicial factors as the only
causes contributing
to disparities. Worse
yet, such as excuse
leads to the reduction
of disparities being
viewed as an intractable problem.

Today, youth of color comprise 35 percent of the total U.S.
youth population, yet make up 65 percent of all youth who are
securely detained pre-adjudication.44 Overrepresentation such as this
is rampant in all levels of juvenile justice systems across the country.
But forward movement in the field is obstructed by the constant
and misdirected citation of extrajudicial factors as the only causes
contributing to disparities.
Worse yet, such an excuse leads to the reduction of racial and
ethnic disparities being viewed as an intractable problem, resulting in
confusion about solutions and paralysis around the issue of disparities
reduction found in many jurisdictions today.

40 National Council on Crime and Delinquency. (2007). And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Youth of Color in the Justice System. Washington, DC: Building Blocks for Youth.
41 Ibid.
42 Pope, C.E. (2005). Our Children, Their Children: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Differences in American Juvenile Justice.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Mental Health and Development, Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press. 358.
43 Ibid.	
44 Hynton Hoytt, E., (2001). Reducing Racial Disparities in Juvenile Detention. Pathways to Juvenile Detention Reform, Volume 8.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Online at




t is within this world of myths, falsehoods and conjecture that the federal government has
attempted, and mostly failed, to guide local efforts to reduce the pervasive problem of
disparities in local juvenile justice systems. A historical look at federal efforts reveals a freeflow of financial assistance without oversight or stringent requirements, and weak directives
to States. The results over the span of two decades have been disappointing at best. We begin our
exploration with an outline of federal legislation, and then address their inefficiencies.

Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act (JDPCA) of 1968
Juvenile delinquency was a growing concern in the decade before the first juvenile justice
reform legislation, with some Black
civil rights leaders debating how to best
deal with “‘juvenile delinquents’ whose
destructive behavior might harm delicate
race relations in a city,” or, in other words,
Black youth who were leading informal
desegregation efforts in urban areas.45
In 1967, concerns over the lack
of due process rights and long periods
of incarceration for youth were resolved
with the Supreme Court’s landmark In Re
Gault decision46 requiring that most of the
due process rights afforded to adults also
be granted to juveniles. The following
year, public pressure sparked by a
National Advisory Commission report that
recommended significant juvenile justice
reform led to the passage of the JDPCA,
referred to as the Four D’s.47
They were:
1) Decriminalization of status 		
2) Diversion of first-time and petty 	
offenders out of the juvenile
justice system and into
community institutions;
3) Due process; and
4) Deinstitutionalization48

45 Wolcott, V.W. (2006). “Recreation and Race in the Postwar City: Buffalo’s 1956 Crystal Beach Riot.” The Journal of American History. 93(1). Image and article online at
46 (387 U.S.1,1967)
47 Mahoney, A.R. (1987). Juvenile Justice in Context. Boston, Massachusetts: Northeastern University Press. Sponsored by the
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
48 i.e. Correctional programs that utilized open community settings as an alternative to incarceration.


While the intent of the Four D’s was welcomed, it was undermined by the political salience
of the “tough on crime” movement that emerged in the turmoil of the late sixties. The Nixon
Administration established another national commission in 1973, the National Advisory Commission
on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, and its report found at least 50 percent of States’ detention
populations were status offenders who were not alleged to have violated any state law and were
often held in deplorable conditions of confinement.49 The consensus among juvenile justice and
child welfare professionals was that the JDPCA was ineffective, and more reform was necessary.50

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974
The recommendations of advocates and the 1973 National Advisory Commission were reflected
in the JJDPA, which was signed into law by newly-sworn President Gerald Ford on September 4, 1974.
The Act was designed to influence State juvenile justice policy by providing monetary incentives for
compliance with federal mandates. In its original form, the JJDPA had three primary components.
First, the JJDPA established institutions within the federal government to coordinate and administer
juvenile justice efforts. Second, it established grant programs for the issuance of federal funding to
States for juvenile justice efforts. Lastly, it dictated two core requirements
that States must meet to receive funding — remove status offenders from
The CJJ’s
pre-trial lock up and deinstitutionalize status offenders.51
While the JDPCA was administered by the Department of Health,
Education and Welfare, the JJDPA was to be administered by the new
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). After initial
debate, the OJJDP was placed under the Office of Justice Programs, where
it remains today and with that particular positioning sends a clear message
that punishment still takes precedence over rehabilitation of youth.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ)

examination of
data found that
while incarceration rates were
dropping overall, youth of
color were not
benefiting from
the reductions.

In 1984, the National Coalition of State Juvenile Justice Advisory
Groups (now called the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, or “CJJ”) began
convening annually to address issues and problems that were a priority for the growing field of
juvenile justice professionals. The assemblage issued reports to the President, Congress and the
Administrator of the OJJDP in order to help shape States’ juvenile justice policy at the federal level.
At a 1988 conference in Mississippi, the CJJ outlined disproportionality statistics in its report
A Delicate Balance. The disproportionality of youth of color in the juvenile justice system was
reaching a level that required immediate attention, the CJJ stated in the report, adding, “Disparate
juvenile and criminal justice rates for minorities are not a new phenomenon…We are seeing greater
attention being given to differential arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing by many States
and localities. Unfortunately, the problem is, more often than not, made more difficult by rhetoric
and rage, which disturb the delicate balance between equity and justice.”
The CJJ’s examination of data found that while incarceration rates were dropping overall,
youth of color were not benefiting from the reductions. White youth accounted for 75 percent of
the entire decline in youth incarceration, while the incarceration of Latino youth had increased by
49 Ibid.
50 Rosenheim, M., (2002). A Century of Juvenile Justice. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
51 Nunez-Neto, B. (2007). “CRS Report for Congress. Juvenile Justice: Legislative History and Current Legislative Issues.”
Order code RL33947.	


10 percent.52 The CJJ report also found that White youth were sent to private correctional facilities
while youth of color were increasingly sent to public facilities. Overall, youth of color represented
93 percent of the total increase in youth incarceration in public facilities between 1979 and 1982.
Such disproportionality was also brought to light in Congressional hearings. During testimony
before the Subcommittee on Human Resources, OJJDP Administrator Ira Schwartz stated:
“Minority youth now comprise more than half of all the juveniles incarcerated in
public detention and correctional facilities in the United States and that despite
widely held perceptions to the contrary, there is recent research showing that
minority youth do not account for a substantially disproportionate amount of
serious crime. However, minority youth stand a much greater chance of being
arrested than white youth, and once arrested; appear to be at great risk of being
charged with more serious offenses than whites who are involved in comparable
levels of delinquency.”53

Amendments to Nowhere
In 1988, Congress seized the opportunity to respond to overwhelming evidence that youth
of color were coming into contact with the juvenile justice system in greater, and unwarranted,
numbers when compared to White youth.
Congress amended the JJDPA to require that States pay specific attention to the problem
of the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. States would have to
demonstrate “specific efforts to reduce the proportion of the youth detained or confined in secure
detention facilities, secure correctional facilities, jails and lockups who are members of minority
groups if such proportion exceeds the proportion such groups represent in the general population.”54
This requirement to the federal statute is known as Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC).
The OJJDP was also required to develop and publish a State Plan of its work around juvenile
justice activities and submit an annual report to the President and Congress. Plus, the OJJDP
administrator was directed to provide more technical assistance to States, local governments and
local private agencies to facilitate compliance with the JJDPA. The
But the euphoria was
amendment was a significant step in establishing disproportionality
as a national problem that required a local solution. Great optimism
short-lived. The lanfollowed, with one academic opining that the new language “absolutely
guage in the JJDPA
requires that States get seriously involved with their DMC statistics.”55

mandated little action
from States...States
that failed to comply
with the requirement
were not in jeopardy
of losing juvenile justice funding.

But the euphoria was short-lived. The language in the JJDPA
mandated little action from States. It required each State address
the issue of disproportionality in its State Plan, but the Act did not
tie funding to this mandate. States that failed to comply with the
requirement were not in jeopardy of losing juvenile justice funding.
In 1989, the OJJDP developed a two-stage approach for

52 Hawkins, D., (1987). Crime Control and Social Justice: A Delicate Balance. Citing Krisberg, B.
53 Testimony of I. Schwartz before the House Subcommittee on Human Resources. 99th Congress. 2nd Sess. (1986).
54 Section 223(a)(23)
55 Letman, S. T., & Leslie, K. (2004). Disproportionate Minority Confinement. Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, Volume 4. 57.


compliance with the amendment in order to assist States in
addressing disproportionality, referred to as the “Technical
Assistance Strategy.” First, a State was to demonstrate whether
youth of color were overrepresented in their local juvenile justice
systems. Second, if overrepresentation did exist, the State was to
take steps to account for it. One year later, the OJJDP issued a DMC
Technical Assistance Manual to guide States’ efforts to address DMC
in three phases: Identification, assessment and intervention.

By failing to establish uniformly structured and intentional
guidelines, the federal
government set the
bar so low that today
nearly anything ...
done in the name of
“DMC” is still considered adequate.

In 1992, Congress revisited the issue of DMC in its
reauthorization of the JJDPA and elevated addressing DMC to a core
requirement. The reauthorization mandated that future formula
grant funding allocations to States under Title II of the JJDPA would
be linked to compliance with the DMC requirement. Failure to
“address” disproportionality would leave States in jeopardy of losing 20 percent of their formula
grant funding. But the statutory amendment lacked guidance on what “addressing” DMC entailed
and what “compliance” meant — failing again to induce reductions in DMC.
This “check the box” requirement, as some would soon dub it, was exploited by many
States, ushering in the current trend of form over substance. To this day, financial penalty for failure
to make progress remains a hollow threat. Communities of color continue to suffer the brunt of
disparate treatment and child advocates are left battling an edifice of institutionalized indifference.
In 2002, Congress amended the JJDPA once again, this time broadening the DMC core
requirement. States were directed to address disproportionate contact of youth of color with the
juvenile justice system, not just their confinement in secure detention. Specifically, the amendment
required that States “address juvenile delinquency prevention efforts and system improvement
efforts designed to reduce, without establishing or requiring numerical standards or quotas, the
disproportionate number of juvenile members of minority groups who come into contact with the
juvenile justice system.”
Although it appeared promising, the new amendment amounted to little more than a symbolic
gesture. The vague federal requirement that States “address” disproportionality still lacked guidance
for state and local officials about how to actually work to reduce the overrepresentation of youth of
color in their juvenile justice systems. By failing to establish uniformly structured and intentional
guidelines, the federal government set the bar so low that today nearly anything —regardless of how
attenuated or remote from actual results — done in the name of “DMC” is still considered adequate.
With the next reauthorization of the JJDPA, Congress has an opportunity to strengthen the
requirement for reducing disparities in the juvenile justice system by outlining the concrete steps
that States must take to address DMC and requiring more in State compliance. In doing so, Congress
can ensure that states are not simply talking around the issue of disproportionality in the juvenile
justice system; they are confronting the problem and taking action.




here’s been a lot of motion but little movement in the last two decades. This inherited
culture of the lowest common denominator in disparities reduction has resulted in a class
of decision-makers who could have a significant impact on racial and ethnic disparities, but
are unmotivated to do so. Instead, they make-up a multi-million dollar cottage industry
whose primary activity is to restate the problem of disparities, in essence, endlessly adoring the
question of what to do about DMC, but never reaching an answer.

A Call for Direction
The current state of the art in the field of juvenile justice is that if you meet the minimum
base requirement to address disproportionality, you will be provided funds for your attempt, not
your results. Delay, diversion and avoidance are rewarded and the intent of federal mandates is
circumvented. Meanwhile, the overrepresentation of youth of color climbs.
How many more annual DMC-related conferences will be held to restate what was discussed
the year before? How much money will be spent on hotel rooms and catering instead of programming
that is intentional, targeted, data-driven, and has been proven to reduce disparities? How many
DMC coordinators in less populous states will remain underfunded and without the time or influence
needed for transformative impact? How many DMC committees will continue to exist in name only?
Some jurisdictions have grown weary of this merry-go-round of inaction and have tried to
enact change. For many, their initial strategies are well-intentioned, but scattershot and poorly
informed. Current federal mandates do not provide guidance or engagement, and lack a consistent
linear process for reductions. What often results is a local jurisdiction employing some form of a
mentoring program, improved data collection or cultural diversity training. In fact, the majority
of one State’s DMC compliance plan is comprised of efforts to ensure cultural competency among
employees, sub grantees providing services to youth, and agencies providing services within their
juvenile justice system. Cultural competency is important in an increasingly diverse world, but such
attempts to do not translate directly into measurable reductions in racial and ethnic disparities.
Other States mention in their plans that they will provide “technical assistance” to counties
to reduce DMC, without elaboration. Thus, they collect federal DMC reduction monies to “address”
the problem without offering any viable solutions. A common scenario observed by BI staff involves a
jurisdiction that has found through data analysis that youth of color from one particular side of town
are overrepresented in their detention facility. But rather than deconstructing their juvenile justice
system, and developing a strategic response, the jurisdiction employs a
“youth development” approach by instituting a mentoring program for
It is considerably
“at-risk” youth at a community center.

easier for system
Such a strategy is attenuated at best, and at worst, a misuse
stakeholders to blame
The approach wrongly views youth as the problem and
youth than to do the
steers clear of the need to focus on the structural biases inherent
hard work of examin- in the system’s operation. The example underscores a significant
ing and transformstructural barrier in local juvenile justice systems. It is considerably
easier for system stakeholders to blame youth than to do the hard work
ing the practices and
of examining and transforming the practices and policies that may be
policies that may be
contributing to the disparities.
contributing to disparities.
Jurisdictions with some modicum of success have been


intentional about gaining traction, often by first hiring a DMC coordinator whose responsibility
is to provide a jurisdiction with direction, guidance and funding aimed specifically at achieving
measurable results.

Hope for the Future
Law and policy reform help to ensure that juvenile justice practice and procedure do not
disparately impact youth of color. But while strengthened legislation is absolutely necessary, it
cannot engender the commitment needed to engage in real work to reduce disparities. Individual
stakeholders must also foster the will to reduce the disproportionality of youth of color.
California is one model for change, for example, as a state that has taken leadership of
disparities reduction and provided the funds necessary to make such efforts attainable. In 2006,
the State Advisory Group launched a competitive bidding process for counties willing to undertake
an intentional disparities reduction effort directed by the state. Approximately $3.1 million in total
was awarded to five counties willing to undertake activities including staff trainings, data analysis
and engagement of a wide range of juvenile justice stakeholders. This is a forward-thinking formula:
Focus dollars in amounts that will provide support for change; delineate expectation for reductions;
and provide intense technical assistance to jurisdictions aimed at measurable results.
By contrast, federal mandates do not provide this level of guidance and engagement. The
OJJDP’s website points to jurisdictions with best practices, and local efforts to address disparities,
but there is little direction regarding how a jurisdiction might negotiate such a process. Moreover,
although millions in federal dollars have been allocated to States to address DMC within their juvenile
justice systems — funds that have slowly declined in the past few Republican administrations — very
few states have achieved measurable sustained reductions.
One solution is clear: Strengthen federal legislation so that it provides the guidance necessary
to States and localities in their efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice
systems. Most of the JJDPA’s provisions expired in 2007 and remain unauthorized. Congress can
reauthorize the JJDPA to provide better guidance, an important first step the Senate has already
taken. On July 31, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed bi-partisan legislation S.3155, the
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008. The bill addresses some of
the JJDPA’s shortcomings and provides clear guidance to States and localities by requiring that they:
1) Plan and implement data-driven approaches to ensure fairness;
2) Set measurable objectives for racial and ethnic disparities reduction; and
3) Publicly report their progress in reducing disparities.

Further federal action is needed to create a nationwide model, and a sense of urgency
that reaches down to local stakeholders and decision-makers. Congress and the new Administration
should enact such measures and stringent requirements, standards and guidance in order to
effectively reduce the complex and persistent problem of disparities. Moreover, local officials with
the responsibility of leading disparities reduction efforts must make dramatic efforts including the
adoption of systematic data analysis and collaboration with communities and field experts.
In jurisdictions across the country, we have collected statistics that reveal youth of color are
overrepresented in probation violations, placement failures and warrants. We will outline in our 2009
publication the model jurisdictions that have reduced disparities by coupling institutional response
with political leadership, a willingness by stakeholders and decision-makers to self-examine, and
an overarching belief that the fair and equitable administration of justice is a moral responsibility.




he nation recently elected its first African American President — a truly historic
moment. There will be much talk about whether or not we have reached a postracial America, and, perhaps, conjecture as to whether working to reduce racial and
ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system is passé.

We believe Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House should be celebrated and
embraced as a significant step forward. But we also believe it will not change unrealistic
conditions of probation imposed by courts, or create culturally sensitive alternatives to
detention, or lessen case loads, or make the system more rational and data-driven. Our
vigilance must be maintained. The status quo is no longer acceptable.
Great minds have long grappled with how to realize the idealism expressed by
the nation’s architects in the fair and equitable administration of justice. Today, many
communities of color continue to view justice systems, adult and juvenile, as coercive. Most
have only experienced the punitive and retributive power of the State. Justice, in order to
be sustained, requires consensus. The entire justice apparatus requires grand bargaining
between the governors and the governed.
But such a bargain is breached if communities of color and low-income communities
believe the justice system is unfair and biased. They opt out, while still bearing the brunt
of forces that place them at society’s margins. The current justice system model, which
employs incarceration as the primary tool, is costly and lacks evidence-based correlatives to
crime reduction. As a result, millions of people of color are being warehoused and entangled
deep within a system with significant structural barriers to addressing its own inequities.
This is a tragedy that strikes at the heart of our nation’s democratic ideals. As Eleanor
Roosevelt said, “The rights for all humans begin in small places, close to home; such are the
places where man, woman and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity.”
We must embrace the credo that every life in our nation has epic significance. Furthermore,
on this 20th anniversary of the Congressional mandate to address disproportionality, we
must demand equity and action.
As articulated so often by the 44th President of the United
States, Barack Obama, change is inevitable if we are all dedicated
to its fruition. The BI has measurably reduced racial and ethnic
disparities by working closely with system stakeholders in more
than 30 jurisdictions. We have learned from our experiences on
the ground that change requires strengthened federal mandates
that would provide jurisdictions with requirements, standards
and guidance in disparities reductions, and financial incentives
based on measurable results and effective work plans. In our 2009
publications, we will discuss specifically how jurisdictions can
lead this call and employ proven methods to reduce disparities.

The solutions rest
in all of our hands.
We must now
strive to make the
words inscribed on
the U.S. Supreme
Court building,
“Equal Justice Under Law,” a reality.

The solutions rest in all of our hands. We must now strive to make the words inscribed
on the U.S. Supreme Court building, “Equal Justice Under Law,” a reality. We cannot afford
another two decades of inaction.
-W. Haywood Burns Institute

W. Haywood Burns Institute

180 Howard Street Suite 320
San Francisco, CA 94105
415.321.4140 fax