This blog post is part of Health & Medicine’s “mythbusters” series which looks at common beliefs related to our work, providing data and context to separate fact from fiction.Myth: Racism does not exist in our juvenile justice system.
Reality: The myth that we are holding youth based solely on their crimes fails to account for how Racism and other forms of oppression operate in the justice system.
In Illinois, our Juvenile Justice population is largely youth of color.*
As we move further into an age of juvenile decarceration, the claim often made by politicians is that only the worst offenders are being held in secure confinement. This can give us the notion that only those young people committing violent crimes—those that pose a “threat” to our community and safety—are being held in secure confinement.
But if that was the case, why are so many of the offenders held in secure confinement young, poor, and Black? The notion that we are holding youth based on their crimes hides the larger social inequities that become clear when we truly examine how Racism operates with other forms of oppression.
When we look at arrest data, it would seem to support the claim that Black youth, while overrepresented in the justice system, are committing significantly higher rates of violent crime. However, when you look at self-report rates of violent crime, the numbers do not show the same level of disparity. In fact, a national youth survey found that about 36% of Black males, 25% of White males, 18% of Black females, and 10% of White females reported committing a serious violent offense. The National Crime Victimization Survey found that 52% of aggravated assaults were committed by White juveniles, and just 31% were committed by Black juveniles. The rates of robbery were almost flipped, so while Black youth were more likely to commit robbery than White youths, the total percentage of White youth offending (42%) and total percentage of Black youth offending (41%) are almost equal.
Despite nearly equal rates of committing offences, our justice system is disparate at every point, and the disparities grow as youth move further into the system. An Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission report from 2010 data shows that, while Black and White youth commit crimes at nearly the same rates (and in fact, White youth report using and selling far more drugs), the juvenile justice system does not respond justly:
To address this, we as advocates, activists, and educators, need to move beyond the simple focus of changing individual communities and look at the systemic factors that lead to disproportionate minority contact (DMC). We need to focus the conversation on the ways in which Black youth are seen as inherently more dangerous, more “at risk,” and more in need of contact in the justice system. To move beyond this myth, we need to question the use of risk assessment tools that are biased in their assessment of risk, and to push back on people who suggest that mentoring will solve the problems facing youth in the justice system.*Because data on Latinx youth is not collected, or collected differently by different systems, it is difficult to talk about disparities outside of a Black/White context, so for the purpose of this post, we will only focus on crime and justice involvement from a Black youth/White youth perspective.