When assumptions color thinking on young offenders

March 06, 2000|By Odeana Neal

RECENTLY, students in my juvenile justice class and I discussed a case in which a 12-year-old and some friends brought plastic bags and a medicine vial to school containing milk chips that resembled crack cocaine. Timothy distributed the milk chips to his friends throughout the school day. He did not try to disguise the fact that these were chips. He did not seek money for their distribution. None of his schoolmates thought he had or was trying to distribute crack.

Nevertheless, Timothy was found delinquent on the basis of distributing a controlled, dangerous substance.

The Maryland Court of Appeals declared this an error, stating that the facts in this case indicated that Timothy was playing a game, not trying to commit a crime. One of my students argued that even if Timothy were playing a game, the case still warranted juvenile court intervention in some way.

`It's different'

After all, she said, he was "playing" at being a criminal -- and surely that does not bode well for his future. But, I responded, kids have been playing cops and robbers for years. Should the juvenile court intervene into the lives of all children who play robber? No, my student replied. So what's the difference between playing robber and playing crack dealer, I asked. My student replied, "I don't know. But it is different."

Although I may be mistaken, I believe that my student thought Timothy was African-American (even though nothing in the case indicated his race) and that this single fact played a significant role in her consideration of the situation. A young black boy playing crack dealer must mean trouble, right?

During the nine years I have taught juvenile justice, I have observed that my students' racial perceptions significantly affect how they think about the situations we study. African-American children's wrongdoing is often seen as more serious and more sinister than the wrongdoing of white children. They sometimes get nervous when I suggest that racial stereotypes may play a role in how they view a child and whether he's really delinquent; some admit that racial imagery has affected their thinking.

This does not mean that my students are racists, but it does mean that they, and all of us, are profoundly affected by our ideas about race. It's important that we try to be aware of it and check ourselves, and one another, when we make assumptions about individuals because of the racial images in our heads.

It's particularly important that we do that when the fate of another individual may depend on our images.

Juvenile justice

Many decision-makers in the juvenile justice system, like my students, may be making decisions inappropriately on the basis of race. The numbers bear that out.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently issued a report showing that although 39 percent of victims of juvenile crime report that the perpetrators of those crimes are African-American, a higher percentage of black children are arrested and detained for juvenile crime. Maryland statistics from the Department of Juvenile Justice show arrests and detention of black youths are similarly disproportionate.

That doesn't mean that officials in the juvenile justice system -- police officers, intake officers, prosecutors, masters and judges -- intend to do harm, but at least some of them are making unconscious assumptions about children based on race.

Those assumptions can make the difference between whether a child is chastised or arrested, sent to counseling or to juvenile court, charged with a more serious or less serious crime, or placed on probation or confined. Those assumptions can have a devastating effect on children, their families and their communities.

Needed legislation

State lawmakers are considering legislation (House Bill 385) to examine disproportion in the juvenile justice system, find its causes and adopt remedies to eliminate it. Such a measure is urgently needed.

Surely if our justice system is biased, we want to create one that is not. We cannot teach our children anything about justice if we are not willing to practice it.

Odeana Neal teaches juvenile justice at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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