February 11, 2015

Juvenile Justice Reform: How Far Have We Really Come?

Racial Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System symposium

by Jennifer Carreon, M.S.C.J., Policy Researcher, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Sarah Bryer, National Juvenile Justice Network

*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.


In the past decade, there has been a lot of good news in the field of juvenile justice reform – not least the series of four landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, recognized the developmental differences that separate children and teens from adults, including their lessened culpability and enormous capacity for change.  At the same time, most states have significantly cut the number of youth they incarcerate.  Between 2001 and 2011, the number of youth confined in the U.S. declined by 41 percent.

What’s more, new data from Texas shows that incarcerating fewer youth and serving more of them in the community makes communities safer.  Since 2007, the state has closed nine youth prisons, even as the juvenile arrest rate fell to a 30-year low.  In a report released at the end of January, the Council of State Government’s (CSG) Justice Center analyzed 1.3 million individual case records spanning eight years and assembled from three state agencies.  CSG found that youth who were incarcerated were 21% more likely to recidivate than youth handled locally.

But it’s not time to break out the champagne yet: In spite of a decade of reform, racial disparities are worse than ever.  A new national study looking at racial and ethnic disparities between 1980 and 2000 found that Black and Hispanic boys were far more likely to be sent to a secure facility than white boys for similar behavior.  In the U.S. in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), Black youth were incarcerated five times as often as White youth; Latino youth twice as often; Native American youth three times as often.  If we think of the juvenile justice system as a maze with pathways in and out, it’s clear that youth of color have far more pathways into the maze than White youth do, and they’re lucky to find a pathway out.

Even in states where significant juvenile justice reforms have been undertaken, the ratio of youth of color receiving dispositions in juvenile court has gotten worse, not better.  In Texas – where the CSG report provides powerful evidence that youth justice reform has produced promising results – one sees disproportionate numbers of youth of color at every decision point in the system, and with Black youth in particular, who appear at almost twice the rate one would expect compared to their numbers in the general population.

There are many strategies to address the racial and ethnic disparities in our juvenile justice system.  One place to start is at the beginning: the aptly-named “school-to-prison pipeline.”  In a groundbreaking longitudinal study of school discipline in Texas schools released in 2011, Breaking Schools’ Rules, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that both Black and Hispanic youth, when compared to White youth, were disproportionately likely to be disciplined for offenses that were up to the discretion of school officials.  Black students fared the worst, as they were 31% more likely to receive discretionary discipline when compared to otherwise identical White and Hispanic students.  However, both Black and Hispanic youth were much more likely to receive out-of-school suspension for a first-time violation and to be repeatedly disciplined.  The consequences were predictable.  Researchers found that any student suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was almost three times as likely to have subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system.  Obviously, this effect was greatly magnified for youth of color.

These results have been echoed at the national level as well.  In guidance for school districts given jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice in January 2014, the federal government noted the significant racial and ethnic disparities in the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the justice system, and their link to “increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.”

What can be done?  Reformers have been tackling the problem in a number of ways.

One strategy is to implement an evidence-based, school-wide disciplinary plan like Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports  (PBIS).  Interventions of this kind seek to change the school climate to effectively address behavior issues without resorting to exclusionary discipline or law enforcement.  In addition, the use of “restorative justice” techniques, such as mediation and talking circles, have shown promising results in reducing suspensions and misbehavior.

While placing police in schools contributes to the over-criminalization of youth behavior, advocates strongly recommend that school-based police, where they are present, receive training in topics such as adolescent development, mental health, trauma, de-escalation techniques and non-harmful restraints.  Likewise, school personnel should receive cultural competency training.

Transparency is also key.  School districts should track disciplinary data, broken out by race and ethnicity, so that they can work with state and local officials to identify what’s working and address areas where disparities are inappropriate.

Juvenile courts, too, can refuse to accept referrals for behavior that could be handled by school officials.  As of 2011, probation supervisors working for Connecticut’s Judicial Department started recommending no further court involvement for typical adolescent behavior, such as wearing a hat in school, talking back to staff, running in the halls or swearing.

Using these strategies and others, reformers are slowly making progress to reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.  We fervently hope that 10 years from now, we’ll finally have a youth justice system that is truly just.