Juvenile justice experts said Thursday that the racial disparity in young offenders in Indiana is alarming and cited new data that shows black youth are far more likely to be placed in detention centers than whites when arrested for similar offenses.
About 200 judges, social workers and other experts from Indiana and other states gathered in Indianapolis to discuss how to handle the state’s racial disparities in the arrest and prosecution of juveniles. The meeting was an outgrowth of a state commission’s report in October about youth services in the state.
Russ Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University, said preliminary figures based on 2008 data show that black youth were on average about three times as likely to be arrested than other races. He also found that blacks were more likely to be detained for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct or violating probation than whites, and were much more likely to be sent to detention centers than white youth arrested for similar offenses. His data showed that blacks overall were about twice as likely as other races to be detained and that blacks were more than six times as likely to be detained for drug offenses — even though they were arrested for such crimes less often than whites.
His study, expected to be released later this year, was based on data from the nine Indiana counties that have a computerized juvenile justice system database.
Other experts said far too many youngsters — whatever their race — are getting caught in the criminal court system.
Zero tolerance policies often enforced by school police can put youth on a direct path to the courts, detention centers and dropping out of school, they say.
“The zero tolerance strategies — they just really don’t work,” said Noble Wray, chief of the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin.
Several experts said one solution is to give police officers more discretion when dealing with minor juvenile offenses and to provide alternatives to detention such as rehabilitative workshops or community service.
“Formal involvement in the judicial system is not going to be the answer for changing the behavior of these kids,” said Thomas Cleary, the senior deputy district attorney for Portland, Ore.
Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Ga., said the introduction of police in local schools led to a dramatic increase in misdemeanor arrests while weapons and drug offenses didn’t decline in Georgia. Teske said he worked with school officials to start a stepped disciplinary system that led to decreased juvenile arrests.
The decrease in minor arrests at schools freed campus police to do more serious enforcement and led to a 70 percent reduction in weapons-related arrests, he said.
Similar efforts have begun in some Indiana counties. Marilyn Moores, a juvenile court judge in Indianapolis, said her court has a system to handle low-risk juveniles differently than those who pose a danger to the community.
Skiba, the Indiana University professor, said progress had also been made at the state level. The Indiana Commission on Disportionality in Youth Services made dozens of legislative recommendations that led to six bills being passed by lawmakers this spring, he said.
That legislation included laws to provide money for school districts that identify students at risk of dropping out so they can intervene and to require school districts to adopt a graduated system of discipline including alternatives to suspension or expulsion.
“I think it’s a very significant movement,” Skiba said. “I think it’s something we can be very proud of here.”
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