You Can’t Fix Juvenile Justice and Ignore Race

It'll take more than a cost-benefit analysis to stop locking up so many black and brown kids.

By Dom Apollon Jul 16, 2010

The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) recently released a report that provides some useful strategies and examples of states and localities that have successfully downsized juvenile detention institutions and/or redirected funds to more community-based alternatives–programs that are proven to be more humane and effective toward reducing recidivism rates. The report is specifically designed to arm advocates during these "difficult fiscal times," as indicated in its subtitle. But from the perspective of realizing long-term reform of the injustice inherent in the "criminal justice" system, it’s more than a bit surreal to scan the report and find not a single mention of the word race. Or black. African-American. Latino. Minority. I mean, nothin’. 

No stats about how incarceration is devastating people of color communities at widely disproportionate levels. The gross racial disparities. No cost-benefit projections about the positive impact community-based programs would have on our communities in particular. The report seems deliberately race-silent.

I understand the straight cost-benefit analysis NJJN recommends to advocates could be terribly effective in persuading policymakers that preventive and rehabilitative programs are both cheaper and more effective than incarceration. But I also understand the severe limitations in a world where race and racism have so much to do with why we are locking up so many black and brown kids.

As Zachary Norris, former director of the Ella Baker Center’s Books Not Bars campaign and current Soros Justice fellow put it to me, "Even during tough fiscal times, we have to address the emotional aspect and the fear that people hold . . . the fear and racism that justifies (in their minds) locking people up, locking young people up, and locking up youth of color."


Unless we acknowledge and address those racist fears that motivate policy, any short-term reforms toward community-based approaches will be vulnerable to immediate reversal the next time a highly-publicized crime stokes those deeply-rooted emotions. Cost be damned.