Report reveals ‘hidden key to tackling racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice’


By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent

Diverting young people from participating in juvenile court should be a central goal in reducing racial and ethnic disparities, according to new research from the Sentencing Project.

It should also improve outcomes in American youth justice systems.

The author of the report wrote that getting arrested as a teenager or having a delinquency case filed in juvenile court clearly harms the future of young people and increases their later involvement in the justice system.

“Compared to young people who are baffled, young people who are arrested and formally taken to court have a much higher likelihood of subsequent arrests and academic failure,” wrote senior researcher and judge Richard A Mendel. young people at the Sentencing Project.

“Pre-arrest and pre-court diversion can avoid these poor outcomes,” Mendel concluded.

According to Mendel’s research, black youth are much more likely to be arrested than their white peers and much less likely to be turned away from court after arrest.

Other youth of color – including Latinx youth, Tribal youth, and Asian/Pacific Islander youth – are also less likely than their white peers to be turned away.

“The lack of diversion opportunities for youth of color is critical because the greater likelihood of formal treatment in court means that youth of color accumulate longer criminal histories, leading to harsher consequences for any subsequent arrests,” Mendel asserted.

“Expanding diversion opportunities for youth of color therefore represents a critical and untapped opportunity to address the continuing disproportionality in juvenile justice,” he noted.

In-depth analysis of the juvenile justice system’s uneven and limited use of diversion, particularly for black youth, found that in 2019, 52% of delinquency cases involving white youth were handled in a manner informal (diverted) far more than the share of diverted cases involving Black youth (40%).

The report revealed the stark disparity between black and white youth in every major offense category.

“Overwhelming research reveals that diverting youth from the justice system yields better outcomes for youth futures and public safety,” Mendel insisted.

“Yet diversion remains sorely underutilized, especially for youth of color, and unequal treatment in diversion is a key driver of even greater disparities in lockdown later in the process.”

Released Aug. 30, the report, “Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice,” examined decades of research showing how education, career and public safety outcomes are better for youth diverted from juvenile courts.

He provided an introduction to diversion and its impact on racial equity – specifically, the report found that:

  • Compared to youth who formally appear in court, diverted youth are much less likely to be subsequently arrested.
  • They are also much less likely to be incarcerated, commit less violence, have higher academic achievement and college enrollment rates, and earn higher incomes as adults.

Mendel found that diversion disparities result from both subjective biases against youth and families of color and from seemingly neutral diversion rules and practices that cause disproportionate harm to youth of color, either by limiting either unnecessarily qualifying for diversion or making it difficult for young people of color to successfully complete diversion.

Many states and localities have recently adopted new strategies to expand and improve diversion, many of which hold great promise, Mendel further found.

“However, efforts to expand diversion options to date have most often lacked an explicit and determined focus on reducing racial and ethnic disparities – a critical ingredient for success,” he added.

In his conclusion, Mendel said the evidence leaves no doubt that the justice system “is toxic to young people and should only be used in cases where young people pose a serious and imminent threat to safety and well-being of others”.

“For most young people, diversion delivers better public safety and youth development outcomes than formal treatment in juvenile court – and for far less money,” he wrote.

However, youth of color are not offered the same amount of diversion services as white youth.

“Racial and ethnic disparities in diversion play a significant role in propagating system-wide disparities and represent one of the key reasons why efforts to improve equity in juvenile justice have achieved so little progress so far,” Mendel added.

For all these reasons, the diversion stage of the juvenile justice process should be a top priority for juvenile justice reform, he said.

“Advocates should push and system leaders should take aggressive action to address the disparities highlighted in this report,” Mendel wrote.

“Combined, the reforms recommended here to expand the use of diversion and to improve community-led support programs for diverted youth offer perhaps the most important and promising avenue currently available to reduce disparities and improve national youth justice systems.”

Click here to see the full report.

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