New Justice Report Finds Shocking Disparities In How Black and White Children Fare in St. Louis Family Courts

Human Rights

What happens to black children in St. Louis County Family Court is disturbing, but it is hardly an outlier.

The Justice Department found inrecent report that black children are two and a half times more likely to be detained pretrial than white children in St. Louis County Court. After being convicted, black children are more than two and a half times more likely to be placed in the Division of Youth Services custody. White kids are usually placed in less restrictive settings, like probation with in-home services or treatment facilities that are not run by the state.

As disturbing as this data is, St. Louis County is not the only locality in which black children are penalized unfairly in the nation's courts. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth reports that black children make up 17 percent of the U.S. juvenile population, but account for 30 percent of kids arrested and 62 percent of children prosecuted in adult criminal courts.

The problem starts even before they get to court. Studies have shown black kids are criminalized starting in school. Though they make up just 16 percent of U.S. student enrollment, black children represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement.

In 2014, King County, which is home to Seattle, saw more black kids in its criminal justice system for the first time. Though black children make up just 10 percent of the county’s kids, 50 percent of them are behind bars. Florida leads the nation in charging children as adults; black kids make a vast majority of those transfers.

Yushika Florence, a social worker with HANDY, a nonprofit that advocates for foster children in Broward County, Fla., says the racial disparities we see are due, in part, to economics. She says black children who are placed in foster care, for example, are more likely to have encounters with the criminal justice system because many black families can’t afford to take on another child.

“White families are in a better financial situation to where they can take on another child in a household,” Florence told AlterNet. “With the black families, sometimes the kids end up in foster care because, frankly, they don’t have any relatives who can afford to feed another mouth or two.”  

Black kids are also the hardest hit group in terms of being sentenced to life without parole.  

Nationally, 77 percent of juveniles serving life without parole sentences are either black or Latino. In California, where more kids are serving life without parole than in any other state, black kids are serving the sentence at 10 times the rate of white children.

Jody Kent Lavy, director and coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, says that black kids often don’t have adequate representation during sentencing, which leads to longer prison terms.

“We know that people facing life without parole are typically assigned public defenders in the adult criminal justice system who may or may not have any training whatsoever in representing children,” Kent Lavy told AlterNet. “That creates a whole set of other problems. They don’t necessary have any experience with adolescent development research that’s so critical in looking at how young people are fundamentally different than adults in their ability to be rehabilitated, susceptibility to peer pressure, all of the things that should be raised in the defense of a child.”

Then there is the oft-cited 2014 study by the American Psychological Association that found black kids are often perceived as “less innocent” than white children, in general. 

Ferguson and St. Louis County have become known as a kind of ground zero for racism in America (for good reason), but in reality, things aren’t much better in the rest of the country. As the August 9 anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting approaches, it is clear that Ferguson and the county that hosts it represent the rest of America.

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