Young, White and Criminal

Crime may pay … that is if you're young, white and a criminal. A new report released by the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative states that white youth receive better treatment than their minority peers do at every stage of the juvenile justice process. This racial advantage begins at the decision to charge in juvenile court, and continues through the process of deciding to detain before trial, to transfer to adult criminal court, to incarcerate in juvenile facilities and to incarcerate in adult prisons. With the current laws in place, young whites seem poised to be able to enjoy this elite position for some time to come. "Moreover, recent legislative and policy trends throughout the country make it clear that these disparities will continue for the foreseeable future unless political leaders and public officials take significant action at the federal, state and local levels," said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center.

The facts of the report prepared by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) are as follows:

-In every offense category -- person, property, drug, public order -- a substantially fewer percentage of white youth were detained than African American youth.

-White youth are under represented in the detained population in nearly all states.

-White youth are less likely to be formally charged in juvenile court than African American youth, even when referred for the same offense.

-White youth were much less likely to be waived from juvenile court to adult criminal court than African American youth, even when charged with the same offenses. This was true in every offense category.

-When white youth and minority youth were charged with the same offenses, African American youth with no prior admission were six times more likely to be incarcerated in public facilities than white youth with the same background. Latino youths were three times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated.

-Nationally, custody rates were five times greater for African American youth than for white youth. Custody rates for Latino and Native American youth were two times the custody rate of white youth.

Needless to say all are not happy with this most favored status for white juveniles. From civil rights leaders to congressmen to the Child Welfare League, all are having a difficult time accepting the fact that, "white kids got it like that."

"The National Urban League (NUL) finds that a new comprehensive report, 'And Justice for Some,' on the disparate treatment that minority youth are receiving throughout the juvenile justice system leaves no doubt that we are faced with a very serious civil rights issue, virtually making our system juvenile injustice," said NUL president, Hugh Price.

NAACP president, Kweisi Mfume said, "This report by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative is the best evidence yet why state and federal governments and elected officials must immediately address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system."

He went on to say, "Eradicating discrimination in the juvenile justice system has to become a top priority for state and federal governments, elected officials and the civil rights community." Why all the ballyhoo now when whites have enjoyed a position of excellence since Blacks landed on these shores? Further, any one with common sense can watch the daily news or pick up a newspaper and see many cases of young blacks committing crime after crime.

Even though according to the Children's Defense Fund report, "Children and Guns," black youth aged 14-25 make up only one percent of the population yet are charged with 76% of juvenile drug possessions and 28% of all juvenile homicides; that is still nothing to be alarmed about. "This report paints a devastating picture of a system that has totally failed to uphold the American promise of equal justice for all," says Mark Soler who is also the head of the Building Blocks for Youth initiative. "Justice for some wasn't enough at the start of the civil rights era, and it's not enough now. Our message to state and federal leaders is clear: address this problem now."

Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-VA) responded by saying, "The absence of justice for minority youth in the juvenile justice system occurs not only in confinement but as early as the decision to make initial arrest and it continues through the sentencing process." He added, "This report gives further support for maintaining current laws which require that states simply look into the issue of disproportionate confinement of minority youth in the juvenile justice system."

This report has unleashed a groundswell of opinion to change the status quo of whites collecting $200 and Blacks going straight to jail. The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) has called on Congress to address efforts aimed at reducing the disparate treatment of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. Shay Bilchik, executive director of the CWLA and former administrator of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention said, "A prerequisite of an effective juvenile justice system is to treat every offender as an individual and provide needed services to all." He went on to say, "This new report, And Justice for Some, discloses troubling indications that the system is not meeting this standard. We call on Congress to address the over-representation of minority youth in confinement across the nation."

Congress is looking at juvenile justice and working to make tougher, stricter laws that would in affect reinforce the prestigious position of whites. Mr. Bilchik noted that the juvenile justice legislation passed by the Senate and being considered in a conference committee contains a provision that would undermine current law requiring states to address Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC). "Congress needs to support promising efforts currently under way in the states and reject the Senate proposal on DMC," he said.

The report's authors have called for federal, state and local officials to take significant action now to address this problem. "At the federal level, the Administration and the Congress should pledge to support and strengthen the Disproportionate Minority Confinement provisions in the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and should appropriate $100 million for the Department of Justice to address this issue throughout the country," said Mr. Soler. According to Mr. Soler, "State and local officials should investigate the disparate racial impact of their state laws and policies, particularly those providing for prosecution of juveniles in adult criminal court."

If Mr. Soler has his way, one day we might see equity in how juveniles are treated. "They should immediately stop incarcerating young people with adult inmates in jails and prisons. And should declare a moratorium on building new juvenile detention and corrections facilities until they have addressed the differential impact of the system on young people of color," he said.

Nisa Islam Muhammad is a guest contributor to For comments she can be reached at

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