By Ashley Luthern
Nationwide, two out of every five kids incarcerated are black; one out of every five is Hispanic.
The numbers are disproportionate to the percentage of the population that is minority, and it’s a trend found at local facilities, too.
Last year, 74 percent of the 685 Mahoning County detention stays were black youths. About 3 percent were identified as other minorities, and the remaining 23 percent were identified as white.
The number of detention stays includes repeat counts of children who have more than one stay in detention that year.
“Our minority representation is about 20 percent in the entire county, and we have over 60 percent minority here,” said Judge Theresa Dellick.
In 2011, 602 white youths, 885 black or African-American youths, 28 Hispanic or Latino youths, 3 American-Indian youths and 450 youths of unidentified race were referred to juvenile court. All 26 youths whose juvenile cases resulted in a commitment to state youth prisons were black. Six youths had their cases transferred to adult court; one was white, five were black.
The last comprehensive review of disproportionate minority contact, or DMC, was completed in 2009. The Ohio Department of Youth Services and 14 county juvenile courts, including Mahoning County, took part in a study to address the disproportionate number of minority youth entering Ohio’s juvenile justice system.
Using data from 2005 through 2007, the report stated that black youths were overrepresented in the arrest data — a point of entry to the juvenile justice system — and accounted for 57 percent of all youths arrested.
If the arrests were proportionate to the number of black youths in the county, then they should account for only about 23.1 percent of juvenile arrests, the study showed.
Judge Dellick said she doesn’t believe those statistics have changed much in the last three years, and working on DMC is still a priority at the court.
“It’s difficult; We take anybody who walks in our front door. I always say, ‘We don’t send out the invitations,’ so to make us the point of contact for this type of study is hard,” she said.
Identifying DMC has been going on since 1988 when the federal Juvenile Justice Detention and Prevention Act required states with DMC to try to reduce the number of minority youths detained.
Addressing it has proved difficult.
James Bell is the founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that works to reform juvenile justice and reduce the over-representation of minority youths.
“Everyone in the country has counted and knows where it is a problem, and that’s where it ends. What we don’t have is the kind of strategic guidance and political will to go from ‘this is the problem’ to ‘these are the things that we need to do differently,’” said Bell, whose organization has worked in more than 40 jurisdictions nationally and reduced racial and ethnic disparities in them.
The 2009 Ohio study recommendations were for Mahoning County to record what agencies referred youths to court and work with local police departments’ juvenile diversion departments in Youngstown, Austintown, Boardman, Struthers and Campbell.
It also recommended assigning more juvenile diversion officers to Youngstown: two on the South Side and one officer stationed in the other three sides of the city.
But at a time of dwindling budgets, many police departments are struggling to keep even one officer assigned to juvenile diversion. Youngstown has four officers in its juvenile unit, police Chief Rod Foley said.
The juvenile court was awarded a grant to address DMC and hired an individual who had a case load of youths from those areas and worked one-on-one with them, the judge said. But when the grant ended, so did that program.
Foley said he hasn’t been brought in to work on any initiatives relating to DMC, but said the department has professional and cultural sensitivity training and recently held two in-service trainings relating to juveniles.
“There’s a lot of broken families. It’s not that the kids aren’t doing wrong, but it comes back to the poverty issue,” Foley said of DMC.
Judge Dellick said DMC does not occur because individuals, police officers or agencies who refer youths to her court are racist.
Instead, she said, it’s the result of a series of complex factors.
“No. 1 is poverty and a close second is education,” she said.
“In a way, it’s culture, too, because a lot of times when something goes wrong, people think the first thing to do is call the police. A lot of times, they could say, ‘Let’s work this out. Let’s go get counseling. Let’s not call the police,” the judge added.
Bell said it’s well- documented that poverty is a factor, but it’s not the only consideration.
“We know that young people from communities of concentrated poverty are more likely to encounter the justice system because they do not have societal buffers. But I will say to you most teenagers, regardless of economic circumstance, do similar behaviors:
They go to parties, like to dance, drive too fast, as a part of adolescence,” he said.
Bell said it can be difficult for juvenile-justice systems to look inward.
“It’s not the people and the families that are the problem. What are we as a youth justice system doing that might not be assisting them or, worse, might be exacerbating the problem that we have with racial disparity? ... Rarely do systems ask that. It’s blame society, the parents, hip hop and the list gets longer. You could go on forever about what to blame rather than look at what’s going on,” Bell said.
“My sense is this is difficult for most juvenile systems to do on their own without help and assistance, because most of the systems focus on what got that young person there in the first place — and that is their deficiencies. Most systems are not built to discover and enhance the strengths of young people,” he continued.
Bell said he’s not talking about murderers, rapists or other violent offenders.
“When you look at where kids of color are in the system, it’s for probation violations, not showing up to court, running away from placements. It’s all administrative,” he said.
When the Burns Institute works with a jurisdiction, it “takes the vitals” of the system and collects fresh data quarterly.
“When I make this conversation about strength-based strategies, people immediately say, ‘Oh you’re coddling these kids.’ We are talking about young people referred there for behavioral problems, not out there home invading ... Twenty-five years ago, it was considered normal for an adolescent to be testing boundaries that now are often felonies,” Bell said.
Judge Dellick said preventing DMC should begin in school, even before police are involved.
“At 5 or even 4 years old, you can see who’s having conduct disorders or behaviors that, if they’re left on their own, will end up in criminal behaviors,” she said.
But those students should be referred to proper professionals, not the court, to address those behaviors, the judge added.
“You have to ask: Are you punishing criminal behavior or are you punishing juvenile behavior? ... We stopped having probation officers in schools because we saw the school relying on probation officers to do their discipline instead of teachers and principals,” she said.
The exception is Mahoning County High School, which the court has a role in operating. It is staffed with law enforcement who are prepared to work with youths and won’t hand out citations for minor infractions, Judge Dellick said.
The high school accepts students through open enrollment and originally only took students who had been suspended or expelled from high schools throughout the county.
The Burns Institute has used a variety of strategies to limit racial disparities depending on the needs of each jurisdiction. In Camden, N.J., it created a caller notification system to remind youths of their court dates, resulting in a drop in the number of bench warrants. In Peoria County, Ill. the number of black youth admissions to detention for school fights, an aggravated battery charge, was reduced by 43 percent by developing a restorative justice project.
“To me there is no right and wrong answer. But what you want to do is engage the issue and have an informed discussion about it,” Bell said.
Ashley Luthern is a reporter for The Vindicator and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.