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Racism and Mental Health Issues in Juvenile Justice Systems
It seems that, not only are juvenile justice systems deficient in mental health services, and not only is there a disparity between services for whites and African-American youths - but some juvenile facilities may even be contributing to the deterioration of kids' emotional and mental well-being. This paper looks at racial prejudice in the administration of juvenile justice from the point-of-view of who gets locked up, what happens once they're in, and the built-in system cruelty.
Race: Chances of incarceration are far greater if you're a Black kid
Between the years 1985 and 1994, delinquency cases brought through the Juvenile Justice System (JJS) increased by 41%; but more disturbing is the fact that in that time period, delinquency cases involving blacks jumped 78% and cases involving other non-white youths skyrocketed by 94% (Lardiero, 1997). Another key fact illustrating the institutional bias against minority kids is found in a 1987 study (by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges) of ethnicity in much-preferable private JJS facilities vs. generally miserable public JJS facilities: 35% of private inmates were minorities and 65% were white.
Meantime, in 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report on JJS busts ("And Justice for Some" under then-AG Janet Reno), which told the story that all too many minority kids and their families are acutely aware of: among youth never before jailed, "Latinos are three times more likely to be incarcerated - and blacks six times more likely - than whites" (Glasser, 2000). And when it comes to drug busts, "black youths are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison." Minorities receive stiffer sentences, as well: white youths busted for violent crimes are in jail an average of 193 days, the Justice Department report asserts; for the same crimes, black kids are in for an average of 254 days - while Latinos serve 305 days, on average.
Indeed, a kind of institutional racial bias appears obvious in almost every angle in the JJS. For example, "while black youths comprise approximately 15% of the ten-to-seventeen-year-old population at risk for delinquency" (Bishop, et al., 1996), "they constitute 28% of youths arrested." And as one moves beyond arrest, to "later stages of processing," one finds minorities constitute about 62% of youths held in short-term detention facilities, and 60% of those committed to "deep end" long-term institutional programs" (Bishop, 1996).
Is the disparity illustrated in these studies really racism - or a lack of family values on the part of minority parents, as conservative commentators have said? "We find that this report leaves no doubt that we are faced with a very serious national civil rights issue, virtually making our system juvenile injustice," says Hugh B. Price, President and CEO of the National Urban League. "What is most disturbing is the pervasive nature of the discriminatory treatment of minority youth at each stage of the juvenile justice system." But conservative former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Joseph diGenova, said: "This study is saying it is race itself that's causing the problems of minorities. That is absolute nonsense" (Glasser, 2000).
Race: a factor in the length of his JJS disposition, and a factor in whether a child gets prison or mental health care
Bias against minority children incarcerated in the juvenile justice system - and a lack of good mental health service for them - is an unequivocal reality; nonetheless, it's also germane to note that the issue of inadequate mental health services to all juveniles caught in the jaws of the JJS is not a new issue. "Almost from the moment of its inception, in 1899" (Thomas, et al., 1999) "the juvenile court has witnessed criticism of its handling of youths suffering from mental illness," according to the authors, writing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Indeed, Dr. William MacDonald made this statement in a 1912 report on the Connecticut juvenile justice system: "We should have a law creating a Juvenile Psychopathic Institute for Juvenile Offenders...many of these juvenile offenders need the services of a good physician more than they do those of the jailor" (Thomas, 1999).
Certainly, based on the research by Thomas, et al., an analysis of previous empirical data, it appears that when the juvenile is an African-American, that offender is far more apt to, a) receive a more severe disposition; and, b) when in potential need of mental health services, be tossed in JJS lockup rather than given the health care required. Research shows that adolescents are clearly subject to "irrevocable stereotypes" in JJSs, the authors say, an "inequitable" phenomenon which has invoked criticism from a wide range of groups. The authors point to two studies: one by William Arnold, another by Terence Thornberry. Arnold's research of southern states' JJS data "revealed a relationship between race and ethnicity and the severity of the disposition"; Thornberry reported similar findings in Philadelphia, concluding that "Blacks and low [socioeconomic status] subjects were more likely than whites and high [socioeconomic status] subjects to receive severe dispositions" at every state of JJS procedure.
The authors also point to research which illustrates a less publicized yet no less egregious dilemma for black offenders. Reporting on clinical observations (in 1979) from the same Connecticut juvenile court clinic they had studied in 1977, Shelly Shanok and Dorothy Lewis cited "a number of anecdotes of racial bias" (Thomas, 1999). "They asserted that 'seriously disturbed black delinquents have trouble gaining admission to therapeutic facilities [and that] those who were admitted were quick to be discharged.'"
Alluding to a study of 109 children "known to the juvenile court," Shanok and Lewis reported "racial differences in whether children or their parents had received psychiatric treatment." Beyond that, Shanok and Lewis studied the JJS records of "all adolescents from that same area" who in that same year had been admitted state mental health unit. They scrutinized existing data utilizing "a multiple regression analysis of independent variables" - including number of "accidents and injuries" children had up through 16 years of age, number of "face and head injuries" through age 16, and their sex, and race. Shanok and Lewis concluded that "the most powerful variable distinguishing the groups was race."
Further, when repeating the regression analysis and factoring in both accident and injury categories (in binary "yes" and "no" fashion), the number of head or face injuries proved the "most powerful predictor" (30.2% of the variance) and "race was the second best predictor (16.7% of the variance)."
In yet another study, the authors discuss research in New York State involving all 1,474 children (10-18 years of age) admitted to state mental health units in 1988, and all 1,405 (of the same age spread) placed in state JJS facilities the same year. The findings: 25% of children and adolescents in mental health units were black, while 56% of those in JJS buildings were black.
What happens inside some JJS facilities?
In March and May 1995, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Children's Rights Project conducted a JJS inquiry in Louisiana; HRW looked into the conditions in which children (e.g., under 18) are confined. "We found that substantial numbers of children in the state training institutions are regularly physically abused by guards, are kept in isolation for long periods of time, and are improperly restrained by handcuffs" (Whitman, 1995).
One of the most "disturbing findings made by the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project" was that "physical abuse of the children is pervasive." The most complaints HRW received from juveniles was at the East Baton Rouge facility. "Most of the children interviewed" - a majority of whom were black or Latino - told HRW that they "had either experienced or witnessed physical abuse. Many of the children interviewed were so accustomed to the "physical abuse that they expected it as a matter of course."
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is apparently no working complaint system in force, a system by which the children "may bring these abuses to the attention of higher authorities." The HRW report recommends that any physical abuse of the children "be strictly prohibited and punished."
Their report also alludes to the unfair and arbitrary way in which discipline is handled. "As punishment," the report continues, "children are often confined in isolation cells for substantial periods of time without access to reading materials, emerging from the cells only once a day to take a shower." This is not only morally wrong, but HRW says it violates "both the substance and the purpose of the international standards and U.S. constitutional law which clearly require that isolation be used only where children pose an immediate threat to themselves or others and further state that the confinement of children is for the purpose of treatment, not punishment."
Yet another commonly utilized form of punishment for juvenile offenders in Louisiana, was the "excessive use of restraints. Handcuffs are used regularly to restrain children after a fight until they are placed in…[continue]
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