Report: Criminal justice system unfair to Black youth

A report released by a non-profit organization concluded that Black and white youth have been treated differently by the criminal justice system over the years, and the mistreatment continues today.

A report released by a non-profit organization concluded that Black and white youth have been treated differently by the criminal justice system over the years, and the mistreatment continues today.

In September, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice organization released a report that summed up the findings of their study, which looked at the treatment of African American and white youth by the criminal justice system from 2001 to 2006.

The report, Critical Condition: African American Youth in the Justice System, identified a number disparities among Black youth, including disproportionate arrest rates and harsher prison sentencing, as compared to white youth.

“It is baffling that we are still faced with this serious problem of racial disparities in our justice system,” said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice. “It is time for states to reverse punitive laws that result in the transfer and incarceration of African American youth in the adult criminal justice system.”

According to the report, African American youth make up 30 percent of youth arrested while they represent only 17 percent of the overall youth population. Additionally, African American youth are 62 percent of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence, the report revealed.

The NAACP supports the report’s findings and pointed to the now famous Jena 6 case in Louisiana as an example of Black youth being mistreated by the nation’s criminal justice system.

“It is well documented that African American youth are treated more harshly by the justice system than white youth, for the same offenses, at all stages in the justice system,” said NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary O. Shelton. “Recent events in Jena, Louisiana, have brought attention to critical issues facing the African American community including the issues of racial disparities in the justice system.”

The report showed that white youth are significantly more likely than African American youth to use drugs and 30 percent more likely to sell drugs, but African American youth are twice as likely to be arrested and detained for drug offenses.

Further, drug cases were filed against African American youth in adult courts at nearly five times the rate of white youth, and African American youth accounted for 87 percent of those charged with drug offenses. While the arrest rate for white youth decreased nine percent from 2001 to 2006, the arrest rate for African American youth increased by seven percent during this same time period, the report found.

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, there were 411 youth, ages 12 to 17, incarcerated at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, as of Sept. 26, according to Timothy Evans, chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court.

Evans said Black youth currently make up 84.2 percent of the population at the county’s only juvenile center, while Hispanics make up 13.9 percent, whites 1.4 percent and 4 percent are other nationalities. Males, he said, make up 92.2 percent and females 7.8 percent.

“It is my goal to help get as many kids out of the detention center as possible,” Evans told the Defender. “I don’t think kids need to be locked up to be helped. I have always emphasized the need for alternatives to incarceration.”

“We have had a 93 percent success rate with alternatives, as opposed to locking them up,” Evans added.

Will Smith, a federal probation officer for the Northern District of Illinois, said he has seen far too many Black youth incarcerated than receive probation. “You have to remember that when a youth is sentenced, or anyone for that matter, the judge considers a lot, including any criminal record and the nature of the offense,” Smith said. “And having a private lawyer when facing incarceration is very helpful, but too often Blacks cannot afford a private lawyer while whites often can.”

Smith said that more Black men need to step up and become fathers as well as dads to reduce the incarceration rate for Black youth. “The absence of fathers in the lives of Black youth is a vital reason why so many have fallen into the hands of the criminal justice system,” Smith said. “We have too many Black dads and not enough Black fathers in the world. A father helps raise, nurture and support his children where as a dad helps create them and then sits idly by as the mother assumes full responsibility for their well being.”

Wendell Hutson can be reached via e-mail at

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