Fewer youth are being referred to the juvenile justice system than ever before, and youth incarceration rates across the country have dramatically decreased by more than 60 percent in the last several years. While these achievements should be applauded, one significant problem persists: racial and ethnic disparities throughout the juvenile justice continuum, particularly when it comes to arrests and referrals to court.
But some jurisdictions are starting to tackle the issue head on. The state of Connecticut and Sonoma County, CA, offer a glimpse into what progress looks like.
The National Landscape
Despite evidence showing the harmful impacts of arrest and court involvement for youth who pose little risk to public safety, large numbers of young people, particularly those of color, continue to come into contact with the system even if they are low risk.
Statistics in 2018 show that more than 725,000 people under the age of 18 were arrested nationwide, but only 6 percent of these arrests were for violent crimes. Yet kids of color are 5 times more likely than their White peers to be arrested for a violent crime and 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for a property crime and more subjective offenses, such as disorderly conduct and breach of peace.
Most state and local improvements have focused primarily on reducing incarceration. As a result, limited attention has been paid to how young people come into contact with the system in the first place, how initial interactions with law enforcement and the courts can magnify disparities, and how diversion from formal court involvement can be used more effectively to address the needs of kids who do not pose a public safety risk.
Research shows that over-supervising low-risk youth can do more harm than good. Contact with law enforcement, courts, and detention results in lifelong collateral consequences for these young people and exacerbates long-standing racial and ethnic disparities. And, keeping these kids in the system uses precious resources and undermines the ability of jurisdictions to address the needs of youth who are at high risk to reoffend and need supervision.
Challenges in Connecticut and Sonoma County
In 2019, The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center partnered with the state of Connecticut and Sonoma County, CA, to reduce recidivism in each juvenile justice system through the Improving Outcomes for Youth (IOYouth) initiative. Comprehensive, data-driven assessments of these jurisdictions’ juvenile justice systems revealed three overlapping challenges at the front end of the system:
- While referrals to the juvenile justice system are decreasing across all races and ethnicities, disparities in referrals have remained largely unchanged.
- Formal probation supervision is given to many youth assessed as being at a low risk to reoffend, youth with no prior juvenile justice referrals, and youth who have committed misdemeanor offenses.
- Diversion opportunities are not used as much as they could be to minimize system involvement for youth who do not pose a threat to public safety, and diversion decisions are mostly based on offense and criminal history, rather than risk to reoffend and other factors. The juvenile justice system also remains the default system to address youth’s non-criminogenic needs, rather than the behavioral health system, child welfare system, or other appropriate agencies.
Recommendations for Improvement
As a result of these assessments, Connecticut and Sonoma County approved several policy recommendations this year to transform the front end of their juvenile justice systems and address racial and ethnic disparities, including:
- Connecticut agencies will work together to develop an equity dashboard that monitors and compares system involvement for kids of different races and ethnicities, based on current system disparities.
- Leaders in Connecticut plan to draft legislation that will decriminalize certain offenses that are better addressed through other service systems and/or community-based organizations.
- Connecticut will develop policy, administratively or through legislation, that requires all youth screened as being at a low risk to reoffend to be diverted from any form of system supervision (with limited exceptions as needed).
- The Sonoma County Probation Department is developing formal policies and criteria about eligibility for diversion that will be based primarily on the results of a risk screening tool. The eligibility policy will include youth who have prior referral histories and does not preclude youth with nonviolent felonies from participating, if screened as low/moderate risk.
- The Sonoma County Probation Department also plans to work with local law enforcement agencies to establish and/or expand pre-arrest diversion programs to directly address front-end racial disparities and create diversion services that more effectively serve the needs of youth of color.
As states and jurisdictions increase their focus on transforming the front end of their juvenile justice systems and addressing racial and ethnic disparities, a few considerations and lessons learned have emerged.
- Efforts to expand and sufficiently use diversion must also include a focus on pre-arrest diversion in addition to post-filing diversion.
- Juvenile justice systems cannot do this work alone; partnering with other systems serving youth is essential to ensure that youth’s needs are properly addressed outside of the justice system.
- Improving the juvenile justice system as a whole does not necessarily translate into a reduction in racial and ethnic disparities. To move the needle, reducing racial and ethnic disparities must become the primary goal.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2016-MU-BX-K011 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.