June 15, 2001

Commentary

Huge Racial Disparities Found in Juvenile Sentencing

by Fred McKissack

First the good news: Youth crime is down. But before anybody says, "See, the system works," I have some bad news. When prosecutors make the decision on trying juveniles as adults, the race of the juvenile makes all the difference.

Look at Cook County, Ill. Of the 393 youths automatically transferred to adult court in Cook County during 1999-2000, a whopping 99 percent were either African American or Latino, according to a recently completed study commissioned by Building Blocks for Youth and prepared by the Justice Policy Institute, a national think tank that studies criminal-justice issues. Furthermore, 99 percent of the youth imprisoned for drug crimes from Cook County were non-whites.

Crimes deserves punishment. But the shocking facts in Illinois uncovered by the Justice Policy Institute show that punishment is not being meted out equally.

The report (available at www.buildingblocksforyouth.org) has other disturbing numbers.

Between 1986 and 1996, the number of white youth entering Illinois prisons increased by half while the number of African-American youth entering prison more than tripled.

More than half of the juvenile drug-transfer cases had never received juvenile court services before, and 34 percent had no previous juvenile-court convictions.

Nationwide, juvenile black drug offenders are sentenced to 90 days more in state correctional facilities than their white counterparts. For Latino youths, the number is a staggering 160 days longer than for white youth.

Crime deserves punishment. But blacks and Latinos, when it comes to drugs, are committing fewer crimes while doing more of the time.

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports that white youths between 12 and 17 are a third more likely to have sold drugs than African Americans. In terms of usage, a 1998-1999 survey of high-school seniors conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse concluded that white youths are seven to eight times more likely use cocaine and seven times more likely to use heroin.

The cause for the disparity in Illinois, the authors of the Justice Policy Institute study note, is linked to automatic transfer laws that mandate that 15 and 16-year-olds be sent directly to adult court for dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public-housing project.

"Illinois' 16-year experiment with automatic transfer for drug offenses does not affect suburban or rural white youth in a way even remotely comparable to the way it affects urban minority youth," says Jason Ziedenberg, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute.

Crime deserves punishment. But the punishment for crimes committed by all youths should be the same for everyone, regardless of race or class.

However, this is just one part of the problem. These laws, especially for first-time offenders, are too harsh. Consider the long-term effects of moving a youthful offender to adult court. A felony record will act as a roadblock to job and educational opportunities.

Illinois and other states are sending a message that young white lives are more important in the long run than those of blacks and Latinos.

Crime deserves punishment. But our system of justice is discriminatory, and it has abandoned the longstanding notion that youth offenders can be rehabilitated and educated. I shudder to think what these juveniles, without hope, will do as adults.

Fred McKissack, a writer based in Milwaukee, covers culture for The Progressive magazine. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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