December 28, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 20
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New juvenile justice plan expected to close racial gaps

If Massachusetts can mirror the successes of other cites that have put a nationally heralded youth detention initiative to work, the plan could significantly reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS) announced last month it would launch the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) with pilot sites in Worcester and Suffolk counties.

The initiative relies on establishing objective admissions criteria to replace subjective decision-making when young people enter the system, ensuring that only high-risk youth are held and that those considered less likely to commit another offense before their trials — or flee —- are not subjected to locked detention.

Other jurisdictions using JDAI have seen across the board reductions in youth detention populations without a decrease in public safety. Several of JDAI’s model sites have also shown a significant decline in the proportion of minority youth involved in the system when compared to figures from before the initiative was put into practice.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2004 census of juveniles in residential placement showed that in 2003, African American youth were detained at a rate four and a half times higher, and Latinos at twice the rate, of their white counterparts. According to those figures, minority youth represented 61 percent of all youth detained in 2003, despite accounting for only about one-third of the nation’s youth population.

Numbers from the same year indicated an even larger disparity existing in Massachusetts. The 2004 state Executive Office of Public Safety (EOPS) report said that although minority youth accounted for about 24 percent of the Massachusetts juvenile population, they made up nearly 58 percent of the detention placements and 62 percent of youths committed to DYS that year.

Racial disparities were the subject of three state studies in the 1990s, all of which concluded that the problem of “overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system” did exist in Massachusetts. The reports stopped short of saying the system was biased nor did the state offer any recommendations on how to solve the problem.

DYS Commissioner Jane Tewksbury, who made the call to bring JDAI to Massachusetts, said her understanding is that the drop in minority contact comes from the initiative’s emphasis on taking subjectivity out of the equation.

“I can only speak from what I’ve heard from the other jurisdictions, which is that when you introduce a more objective risk assessment analysis, it just happens. It’s the validated risk assessment tool that actually looks at risk that seems to reduce the disproportionality in the decision-making,” said Tewksbury. “The more you have a guided discretion, the better the decision.”

And the better the results. One year after the JDAI site in Santa Clara, Calif. started using objective screening decisions, 276 fewer youth of color were referred to juvenile hall and 162 fewer youth of color were detained than the previous year. Another California site, in Santa Cruz County, opened a neighborhood evening center for high-risk Latino youth and saw its average minority population in juvenile hall drop from 64 percent to 47 percent.

The JDAI site in Multnomah County, Ore., lowered the proportion of minorities in detention from 70 youth (73 percent) before JDAI to 16 youth (50 percent) in 2003 by using strategies specifically aimed at reducing disparities, such as shelter care, home detention and a day reporting center. Multnomah also doctored its intake procedures, developed an culturally sensitive method of assessing an offender’s risk of flight or committing another crime and creating a seven-person team to review every detention decision.

Elyse Clawson, executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute and a consultant on the development of the state’s Suffolk and Worcester county sites, served as the director of the Department of Community Justice in Multnomah County when it became a JDAI model. She said her team never identified overt or intentional racism in Multnomah, but the initiative’s emphasis on data collection and objectivity gave them the opportunity to discard faulty programs in favor of ones that might be more effective.

“We did over time begin to identify certain places where we could substantially reduce minority representation in the system,” said Clawson. “But it’s something you have to pay attention to always. … It’s not something you ever stop working on, caring about and thinking about.”

The process must continue because no answer is ever absolute. A Sept. 29 story in The Oregonian of Portland, Ore., reported that the disparity was once again growing in Multnomah County, as African American youths were significantly more likely to be arrested, detained and sentenced in 2005 than white youths. While the difference was still substantially lower than the national average, the re-emergence of the gap was troubling, particularly for one of JDAI’s signature success stories.

Officials with Multnomah’s Department of Community Justice continue to examine their policies and explore changes to their risk assessment criteria to stem the tide. It’s that kind of flexibility and responsiveness that has Clawson’s current colleagues believing they can turn around the statistics in Massachusetts.

“It’s hard in JDAI, because you can’t stop who comes to the front door. But with the right tools and the right set of policies, you can work to reduce the number once they come to the front door,” she said.

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