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Quick and Dirty

Unequal Under the Law

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 10/12/2005

The “No Turning Back Report” can be found here.

A new report issued by Building Blocks for Youth initiative, a Washington-based alliance of juvenile-justice advocacy nonprofits, delivered bad news for minority youngsters last week.

According to the findings of the new report, issued Oct. 4 and titled “No Turning Back: Promising Approaches to Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities Affecting Youth of Color in the Justice System,” African-Americans, Latinos, and other individuals of color are disproportionately represented in the legal system—especially juveniles.

“While youth of color are one-third of American adolescents, they are two-thirds of youth in juvenile facilities,” the report notes. It says that youth of color receive “harsher treatment . . . compared to their white counterparts, even when charged with similar offenses.”

Juvenile-justice advocates say that this evidence refutes the general perception of people who believe that more minority youth are incarcerated because they are committing more crimes.

“There is no evidence to point to the fact that blacks or Latinos commit more crimes than whites,” says Malik Russell, communications director for the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization that partnered with Building Blocks for Youth in authoring “No Turning Back.” The Justice Policy Institute and juvenile-justice advocates from Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., met in D.C. last week to discuss juvenile-justice reform and ways to change policies that unfairly target young men and women of color.

“It’s the fact that blacks are targeted more, arrested more, prosecuted more,” Russell says. “There was one study that showed that if you have an African-American with no prior record, who is under 18, that person is 48 times more likely to be sentenced than a white youth with a similar background for a drug offense.”

Russell says this is the information that William Bennett, former secretary of education during the Reagan administration and current radio talk-show host and Fox News contributor, should have taken into account a few weeks ago, when he commented on the air that increased abortions of black babies could, hypothetically, impact the nation’s crime rate. On Sept. 28 Bennett told a caller to the show that if every black baby in the United States were aborted “your crime rate would go down.” The on-air conversation caused an uproar among black leaders and others who say Bennett’s comments were blatantly racist; Bennett has defended himself by insisting the conversation was based on a hypothetical situation about a “morally reprehensible” approach to crime containment.

“According to [William] Bennett’s logic, if we aborted all educated white male babies, corporate crime would go down in this country, too,” scoffed Russell during a phone interview with City Paper on Oct. 5. White males are most likely to commit corporate crimes, the monetary cost of which far exceeds the cost of street crime, he points out.

Advocates like Russell fear Bennett’s comments are an indication of the beliefs of mainstream America and that people will continue to believe that crime is predominantly committed by African-Americans.

Tara Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for ex-offenders in Baltimore, says that Bennett’s remarks “put in stark relief how people are so uninformed and misinformed about crime and our criminal-justice system.”

Andrews says that blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate. “Yet African-Americans are grossly disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system from arrests to incarceration,” she says. “More than 90 percent of juveniles in detention in Baltimore City are African-American. But if you look deeper, the community’s and law enforcement’s response to bad conduct by [white] youngsters is characterized as young people acting out, having growing pains, being mischievous, exploring. But take that same behavior engaged in by an African-American male, and all of a sudden it’s characterized as criminal.”

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