Native American youth protest the Keystone XL Pipeline in NYC - the same kids more likely to be arrested than their white peers. Photo by Joe Gaza, via CC

Native and Black Youth More Likely to be Locked Up Than Whites, Report Finds

A new report from The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., based think tank, found that nationwide, Native youth are three times and Black youth five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

The report supports the concept that racial disparities in the criminal justice system start before adulthood. Though less might be landing behind bars, kids of color are still much more likely to be tangled up in the legal system. White teenagers are less likely to be arrested, and Black and Native youth are more likely to be imprisoned and less likely to be diverted from the system to treatment.

Recent juvenile justice reforms have focused on stopping the school-to-prison pipeline — where mostly students of color are arrested for truancy or behavior that would be traditionally handled within the school, and raising the age for youth under 18 that are charged as adults for crimes. 

Even as incarceration falls, youth of color are still being treated more harshly than their white peers

Josh Rovner of The Sentencing Project

The reforms dropped youth incarceration by half between 2007 and 2017, but there are still more than 43,000 young people under state supervision, according to the new report. Two thirds of those kids are held in confinement in youth detention centers, which are essentially prisons for those convicted of breaking laws while under 18. 

“Even as incarceration falls, youth of color are still being treated more harshly than their white peers,” Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project and the author of the report, said in a press release.

The report found that the disparities originate from different offenses but “also by harsher enforcement and punishment of youth of color.”

Wyoming incarcerates the most youth per 100,000 in the whole country, but New Jersey has the highest disparity between Black and white teens. A Black youth is 20 times as likely as a white youth to be incarcerated even though the state has the second lowest incarceration rate per 100,000. South Dakota and North Carolina top the disparity between Native and white youth. Native youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated. 

“Youth of color are more likely to be incarcerated for each of the categories of offending: person offenses, property offenses, drug offenses, public order offenses and status offenses,” the report says.

“States and counties must tackle their racial and ethnic disparities head on,” Rovner said.

The report offers three recommendations: 1) racial impact statements that address policies and law enforcement’s impact on youth of color; 2) regularly published data on youth in detention that detail ethnicity and race; 3) investment in community infrastructure such as schools and medical and mental health services.  

LJ Dawson is a reporter who has been published in NPR, Denver Westword, NBC, Kaiser Health News and POLITICO Magazine. Her newsletter, The Des, covers the American justice system. Her bio is here.

LJ Dawson is a reporter who has been published in NPR, Denver Westword, NBC, Kaiser Health News and POLITICO Magazine. Her newsletter, The Des, covers the American justice system. Her bio is here.

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