Race predicts handling of most young criminals

Care vs. punishment of mentally ill youths correlates with color

Juvenile Justice analysis

June 25, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials, in deciding whether to treat mentally ill juvenile criminals or merely lock them away as punishment, are prescribing treatment for many of the white kids and punishing most of the black ones.

Some of Maryland's severely mentally ill delinquents receive minimal psychological help and instead are locked in state training schools, or juvenile jails, and fed tranquilizers and other psychotropic drugs.

At the same time, other teens -- with similar offenses, criminal histories and mental problems -- are placed in residential centers that specialize in treating mental illnesses.

Which juveniles get treatment and which go to jail correlates highly with their race, according to data recently compiled by the state Department of Juvenile Justice and obtained by The Sun.

"I think you get into a labeling problem of who's bad and who's sick, and at its core it's explained by a racial bias and really nothing else," says Howard Snyder, director for systems research for the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.

"Let's be frank. There's a feeling out there when a black kid commits a crime of, `Oh, well, blacks will be blacks.' A white kid commits the same crime and the reaction is, `This kid needs some help.' "

Adds James P. McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, a statewide advocacy group:

"It's just reinforcement for a population of children of color that they're bad and not worth a damn. The long-term consequence is they're totally denied opportunity. They're singled out to be excluded from the mainstream, and that means they're more likely to commit crimes as adults.

"If people don't care about this on a moral basis, they ought to care on a practical matter of what it means to them, to their property and their safety."

Nationally and in Maryland, it has long been a pattern for justice officials to push more cases involving minority delinquents into court while dismissing those against white teens.

But numbers obtained by The Sun provide the first hard evidence of how black and white juveniles are dealt with differently in Maryland once they have been found to have committed an offense.

The racial disparity in sentencing juveniles is statewide but most pronounced in Baltimore and its suburbs.

In Maryland, one out of every three white delinquents is sentenced to confinement in a treatment center, compared with one in six black delinquents.

That means that in 1998, 120 white juveniles were sentenced to treatment in Maryland's residential centers and 223 white juveniles were jailed. At the same time, 132 black juveniles received treatment -- but 672 were locked away with no treatment.

In Baltimore, only about one in nine black delinquents was sentenced to treatment. In the metropolitan area's five suburban counties, that dropped to only one in about 13.

Those sentenced to jail were sent to either the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill or the Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick County, anther training school without mental health treatment for the seriously ill.

Because they are juveniles, they will be released before they are 21 years old, their mental illnesses still largely untreated.

State juvenile justice officials say they compiled the data on race and sentencing because they are concerned that a disproportionate number of mentally ill blacks are being denied treatment.

"There is, undeniably, unquestionably, a problem," says Jack Nadol, deputy secretary in the department.

"The split is along racial lines, but why that is we just don't know yet. Our intention is to find out and try to correct it."

Many of those who decide whether to treat or punish juveniles are black, so the sources of the problem might go beyond racism, state officials say, mentioning other factors:

A shortage of beds for juvenile delinquents who need mental health treatment. Residential treatment centers, most of which treat juvenile offenders under state contracts, often reject Baltimore kids because they have been tougher to treat, officials say. (The vast majority of Baltimore juveniles in the justice system are black.)

A long-standing dispute between juvenile justice authorities and the state's mental health agency over how mentally ill kids in the state should be treated and by which agency. Juvenile justice officials want more mentally ill delinquents confined to secure residential treatment centers -- which has been resisted by mental health officials, who want to move away from such centers to less secure, community-based facilities.

A juvenile justice bureaucracy so daunting that kids with parents unable to navigate it are likely to be sent to Hickey or Victor Cullen. Given that a higher proportion of blacks than whites in the juvenile system come from single-parent or no-parent homes, this may translate to a lesser chance of getting treatment.

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