We can do better. But in order to, we must demand accountability from our juvenile justice systems.
San Francisco, CA (Vocus) November 25, 2009
For the families of the more than 90,000 youth in custody of the juvenile justice system any given day, Thanksgiving delivers heartbreak. A majority of incarcerated children in the U.S. are youth of color held for mostly nonviolent offenses. For this, our society pays a high moral and financial price, says James Bell, Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) and lead author of its new report on juvenile justice, The Keeper and the Kept.
“As a society we do not demand nor expect excellence, fairness, rationality or accountability from our child-serving justice systems. But there is too much at stake for our democratic principles and our ability to compete in a global knowledge-based world,” Bell says. “As a country, we are not well-served when we have so many uneducated youth of color undeservedly lost in the American juvenile justice apparatus. We can do better. But in order to, we must demand accountability from our juvenile justice systems.”
Systemic problems in juvenile justice are at the forefront of conversation today, particularly regarding juvenile imprisonment for life without parole. On a national level, Black youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of White youths, according to Human Rights Watch. At the same time, the federal Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is overdue for reauthorization and is expected to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The BI, along with the coalition Act4JJ, is pushing for JJDPA reauthorization for reasons including: 1) reducing racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice; 2) preventing youth awaiting trial in criminal court from adult lock-up; 3) limiting the time that children who are truant, runaway or violate curfew may be held in juvenile lock-up.
This is a vital time for us to consider the nature of our juvenile justice systems. In the new report The Keeper and the Kept, to be released Dec. 1, Mr. Bell challenges our society’s overreliance on detention:
- Local juvenile justice systems must account for the expense and outcomes of their operations. States spend about $5.7 billion each year imprisoning youth, even though the majority are held for nonviolent offenses. Instead, most youth could be supervised safely with alternatives to detention that cost substantially less and lower recidivism.
- In order to analyze at what decision-making points White youth are released whereas youth of color are detained, juvenile justice decision-makers must confront difficult realities around the impact of race. In order to ensure successful reform of the systemic policies, practices and procedures that lead to racial and ethnic disparities, the community should be included in the reform process.
- A vital method for successful reform is using data to ensure that policy and practice change is based on neutral and accurate information. By doing so the BI has reduced by nearly half the jailing of Black boys for school fights in Peoria, Ill., and established alternatives to detention for Latino youth incarcerated to protect them from domestic violence situations in Pima County, Az.
James Bell is available for interviews about this report and other issues related to juvenile justice. Please contact Shadi Rahimi at (415) 321-4100 x103 to receive an embargoed copy of this report.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) is a San Francisco-based national juvenile justice nonprofit that has worked in more than 40 counties to reduce disparities and supports a network of 140 organizations.