Juvenile Injustice: Racial Disparities in Incarceration Start Early

By Alfonso Serrano Feb 28, 2018

Much like its adult counterpart, the United States’ juvenile justice system teems with racial disparities and overcrowding in settings inundated with non-violent, low-level offenders, according to a new report.

Nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative released "Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie" on Tuesday (February 27). Per the report, although Black kids represent less than 14 precent of all American youth under the age of 18, Black boys make up 43 percent of the male population in juvenile facilities, while Black girls comprise 34 percent of incarcerated girls. Native Americans, who represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. youth populace, constitute 3 percent of all girls and 1.5 percent of all boys in juvenile detention facilities.

"At every stage of justice involvement, youth of color face disadvantages—overpolicing of their communities, criminalization of their behavior in schools, and a greater likelihood of being tried as adults and held in adult jails," report author Wendy Sawyer told Colorlines. “If we want to end the overcriminalization of people of color, we need to take steps to help youth—especially Black and Native youth—avoid confinement, which is traumatic and can lead to further justice involvement down the line."

The report’s findings mirror previous research on the adult prison population, which highlight the racially disparate policies that have helped make the U.S. the world’s largest incarcerator. A 2016 study from The Sentencing Project, for example, found that Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of Whites. In five states—Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin—that racial disparity is more than 10 to 1, the report found.

And like the adult prison system, juvenile facilities house a large number of people charged with low-level offenses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report. Technical violations and status offenses like not reporting to probation officers and not completing community service resulted in the incarceration of more than 5,000 young people. This is despite the federal government‘s own guidance that “the purpose of juvenile detention is to confine only those youth who are serious, violent or chronic offenders…pending legal action. Based on these criteria, [it] is not considered appropriate for status offenders and youth that commit technical violations of probation.” 

The report estimates that of the 53,000 youth detained across the country, nearly 17,000 are charged with low-level offenses and could be released without a significant risk to public safety, including 2,000 detained for status offenses, 3,500 incarcerated for public order offenses and 2,000 held for non-trafficking drug violations.


The study also found that a large number of incarcerated youth are not actually serving a sentence. More than 9,000 detainees across the country have not been found guilty or are awaiting a hearing, and 6,500 young people are waiting for sentencing or placement in another facility.

The report lists several policy areas that it says are ripe for reform. They include raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to account for criminal behavior and the adolescent brain, which is still developing reasoning and judgement during teen years, according to numerous studies.

The study also suggests that states replace large youth prisons with non-residential, community-based programs and supervision, while maintaining treatment-focused facilities for youth who pose clear safety risks.

It’s a strategy that’s already paying off as some states—motivated by budget constraints and reported abuses—work to reduce their juvenile prison populations. A decade ago, Texas introduced a series of reforms that created community-based supervision programs and diversion projects closer to youth’s homes instead of far-away facilities. The result was a 65 percent reduction of youth in state-run facilities between 2007 and 2012, according to a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Texas also cut hundreds of millions in state spending during that time, and saw juvenile arrests drop by 33 percent.

"For advocates working to find alternatives to incarceration," Sawyer said in a statement, "ending youth confinement should be a top priority."