End juvenile racial disparity

Delinquents: State cannot tolerate unfairness in treatment and detention of black, white youths.

July 06, 1999

SEVERAL YEARS ago, a nonprofit organization reported the shocking finding that 56 percent of black men in Baltimore between the ages of 18 and 35 were in prison, on parole or probation, awaiting trial or sought on arrest warrants. The report inevitably raised the question of whether everything possible was being done to save all who were salvageable.

That is why the news that African Americans are not receiving the same treatment as their white counterparts when they enter the juvenile justice system is deeply disturbing. All troubled children -- regardless of race -- deserve help to prevent them from falling into intractable lives of crime.

The Sun recently reported that black youths more often than whites are denied treatment for severe mental health problems and instead are sent to detention. Data compiled by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice show that one out of every three white delinquents is sentenced to confinement in a treatment center compared with one of every six African Americans. The result: In 1998, 672 of the 804 black delinquents were locked up in detention centers that do not have mental health professionals, although it is clear that some of them could have benefited from treatment.

Juvenile Justice officials want to place a 22-bed treatment facility with improved mental health services at the Charles H. Hickey School for delinquent youths in Cub Hill. That could give troubled juveniles the help they need. Even if that plan goes through, however, a colorblind system to determine the treatment children receive must be in place.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has ordered juvenile justice officials to come up with reasons for this racial disparity in sentencing. That is the first step. The state then must ensure that delinquents are placed according to their needs, not their color.

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