Redefining Juvenile Justice

Contributed by Amara Willey.


Race discrepancies in juvenile detention could be narrowed by handling misdemeanors as civil rather than criminal cases. More resources towards prevention, education, and treatment would also narrow the race gap, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy organization.


According to Department of Justice data, black juveniles are three times more likely to be incarcerated than Latinos, and six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, nationwide. In New Jersey, for every Caucasian juvenile inmate, there are five Hispanic and 30 African-American inmates, according to the Sentencing Project. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are one Caucasian to nine African-American and three Hispanic juvenile inmates.

Another startling statistic: The vast majority of criminal cases, more than 13 million annually, are misdemeanors.

In many places, misdemeanors are over-enforced in low income neighborhoods, leading to detention, fines and criminal records that can hurt access to education, housing and jobs. On the other side of the coin, in many communities, including those of color, residents demand enforcement of misdemeanors. No one wants to live in a neighborhood overrun by crime and disorder.

As a way to address racial disparity in the justice system, The Sentencing Project recommends alternative sentencing options to incarceration, investing in high school completion, encouraging states to adopt racial impact legislation, supporting drug treatment and prevention, state and local racial equity goals, and examining policy and practice decisions for undue racial impact.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) is working towards one answer of how to address this issue. The NYPD has reduced misdemeanor crime by 36 percent since 2010, by rerouting minor crimes from the criminal to civil courts. In New York, police and prosecutors along with several non-profit organizations are offering those arrested for misdemeanor crimes another alternative to court. Project Reset allows those charged with shoplifting and trespassing the opportunity to complete a restorative-justice circle or a class with a local artist focusing on positive self-expression to leave the process without a criminal record. A recent study of the program showed that cases were resolved 72 percent faster and participants had fewer new arrests compared to those who experienced conventional prosecution.

“New York City offers the outlines of a model that takes seriously the kinds of misbehavior that undermines community quality of life, shrinks the footprint of the justice system and judiciously uses the power of the state to help people improve their lives,” says Greg Berman, the Director of the Center for Court Innovation. “Police should be encouraged to use their discretion to issue warnings and not routinely make arrests when they encounter people engaged in minor rule-breaking. Prosecutors and judges should be provided with alternatives to prosecution and incarceration so that short-term jail sentences can effectively be eliminated. And everyone in the system should be given the training and resources they need to work in a way that is free of bias and that honors the fundamental dignity and humanity of those they encounter.

A 2016 Sentencing Project report found that New Jersey was the most racially disparate state in terms of incarceration, and Pennsylvania was 7th. The study used data collected in 2014. The study found that Pennsylvania had 8.9 African-American people incarcerated for every white person in 2014. New Jersey had a disparity of 12.2 to one. Nationally, the rate is about 5 to one, according to the study. (Pennsylvania had the third highest and New Jersey 10th for ethnic disparity between Hispanic and white persons incarcerated.)

While one of the worst states for racial disparity, New Jersey does have a 2016 racial and ethnic impact law to study the problem and give data to New Jersey legislators to try to ameliorate the system. In October of 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy created a task force by Executive Order for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice. The task force will focus on reducing recidivism and make recommendations for improving the state’s juvenile justice system, including addressing racial disparities.

In 2017, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency recommended a comprehensive strategy for high-risk youth. Though not directed specifically at juveniles, in April of 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf called for eight key criminal justice reforms, including clean slate legislation and fair sentencing. “We need to do the work to make our criminal justice system fairer, more equitable and more focused on rehabilitation,” Gov. Wolf said.


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