Unequal justice for minorities starts early

May 02, 2000|By Tom Teepen

HERE'S ANOTHER study that tells us what we already know. Do you suppose we'll pay attention this time? Not a chance. We'd have to change some bad habits and give up some prejudices that, if not exactly comforting, at least enjoy the cache of familiarity.

"And Justice for Some," a study commissioned by the Youth Law Center and conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, has found that at every step in the juvenile justice system, minority kids are treated more harshly than white kids.

If you are wondering where that grotesque disproportion of African-American men in state and federal prisons comes from, here's the starting point. From their first arrests as children, the inequities visited on Latino and, especially, black kids begin compounding.

And Congress and President Clinton, grandstanding in this election year, seem more or less literally hell bent on making matters worse.

Just look at some of these numbers and how they pile up:

Black kids are 15 percent of the under-18 population, but between 1990 and '98 -- the latest data -- black youths were 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth detainees, 46 percent of young people tried as adults and 58 percent of youths sent to adult prisons.

In 1993, 373 of every 100,000 black youths with no record were incarcerated for their offense -- but only 59 of every 100,000 white youth offenders were. Black youths are charged with 40 percent of drug crimes, but 63 percent of all youths tried as adults for drug crimes were black.

Note: When white and black kids are charged for the same offenses, blacks with no prior record are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated. (Latinos, three times.) White kids are sent home with a warning for transgressions that land minority kids in jail.

Even granting that black youths proportionally commit more crimes than white youths -- itself questionable, but that's another story -- the outcomes for minority kids at every step of the criminal justice process are on average grossly more draconian than for white kids.

The consequences are devastating black community life and undermining job opportunities, economic accumulation and even family formation. (Ex-cons are not top-notch husband prospects.) And the disturbances from those pathologies ripple through all American life.

Pandering to a perceived national hysteria about juvenile crime -- which in fact has been steadily falling for years -- Congress, with the president's encouragement, is pushing juvenile justice "reforms" that in fact would have the effect of trying more youths as adults and of easing the legal hesitations to sending more to adult prisons.

The Senate bill would even scrap the current, mild injunction to states to work at reducing disproportionate minority confinement.

It is a screwy politics that, faced with challenges like these, assiduously goes about fashioning legislative products that will deepen them.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He writes from Atlanta and can be reached at teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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