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Minority populations face high juvenile detention rates

Nonprofit organization Kids Count favors community action to reduce racial disparity

This series explores the racial dynamics of Rhode Island’s school-to-prison pipeline. This story, the second of three, examines disproportionate juvenile detention rates that black and Hispanic students encounter.

Black males in Rhode Island were 9.3 times as likely to end up in juvenile detention centers than their white peers in 2013, according to “The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Black and White,” a report ­released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Feb. 19.

The information reported by the ACLU comes from data collected by Rhode Island Kids Count, a nonprofit organization that advocates better conditions for children in the state.

The number of minority youth referred to Family Court and ultimately placed into detention centers in 2013 was disproportionate to Rhode Island’s racial and ethnic composition, according to Kids Count’s 2014 annual report. Though the 2013 child population in Rhode Island was 64 percent white, whites accounted for just 25 percent of adjudicated youth at the Rhode Island Training School for that year. The remaining 75 percent adjudicated were primarily Hispanic and black, according to the Kids Count report, while the child population was 21 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black in 2013. Minorities were also punished more severely than whites for juvenile offenses of the same magnitude.

“Specifically, what Kids Count has found is a higher number of black youth in front of a judge” than their proportion of the population, said Hillary Davis, policy associate at the ACLU of Rhode Island. Forty-nine percent of juveniles referred to the Family Court in 2013 were white, 19 percent were black, 18 percent were Hispanic, 1 percent were Asian and 13 percent were other or unknown, according to Kids Count data.

Status offenses, or acts that are only illegal because of the offender’s status as a minor, such as truancy, account for the highest number of offenses referred to Family Court, said John Neubauer, a policy analyst at Kids Count.

“Kids who are suspended from school are much more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system” because when children are not in school, they are more likely to be home unsupervised and potentially associating with people engaging in delinquent behavior, Davis said.

As a result of suspension, “the kid gets detached from school and other social services,” Neubauer said.

According to the ACLU report, black youth were disproportionately suspended: 2.4 times as often as their make-up of the population would indicate, The Herald reported Feb. 27.

Once in the juvenile justice system, students are at further risk for involvement in the prison system later in life, Davis said. 

Considering alternatives to detention is important to solving the problem, Neubauer said. Kids Count promotes community interventions to replace incarceration, which may include assigning a case worker to a child on probation, as well as family counseling, he said.

“I don’t think that most of the discipline policies in the schools are fair. It’s not working,” said Sheila Wilhelm, vice chair and co-founder of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a Providence-based grassroots organization that  advocates for a family and community-based approach to change.

The Rhode Island Department of Children has developed a risk assessment scoring instrument that takes into account the nature of the offense and the juvenile’s prior offense history. The risk score will “take the subjectivity out of the detention system,” Neubauer said, adding the tool aims to ensure that low-level offenders and those not likely to be a flight-risk are not unnecessarily detained. The risk assessment procedure will hopefully be incrementally implemented throughout the state within the next several months, he said.

“Making sure that kids who don’t belong at the Training School are not held at the Training School will have an impact on racial and ethnic disparities,” Neubauer said.

“The way to stop this problem is to stop suspending kids in the first place” and reform “the juvenile justice system to make sure children of color are not unduly punished,” Davis said. In October 2014, the Providence Police Department and the Providence Public School District signed a memorandum of understanding to oversee the relationship of schools with Providence Police Student Resource Officers. The memorandum calls for school principals to be the ultimate decision makers on whether legal action is required in situations that are not extreme, which takes the handling of day-to-day disciplinary action away from school resource officers.

“I think what Providence did is a huge step in the right direction,” Neubauer said, adding that officers now have clearer guidelines for their role in the educational disciplinary process, preventing overreactions to incidences of minor misconduct.

But DARE withdrew its support for the memorandum when it became clear that the agreement would maintain a policy of keeping armed police officers in schools, said Fred Ordonez, executive director of DARE.

“I haven’t seen any positive change” since the agreement was made, Wilhelm said.

“We’ve just seen these disparities get wider and wider,” Ordonez said, adding that there is a need for social programs that provide housing, counseling, after-school programs and free mental health services to students.

“Instead of investing in social programs, our government and our legislators and officials — who are mostly white — think that tough discipline or enforcement or incarceration are the ways to solve these social problems,” Ordonez said.

“One of the things that we’re really asking is for state and municipal leaders to take a hard look at why these things happen,” Davis said.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, issued a statement last week in response to the report. “The troubling issues raised in the ACLU report point out how far our society has yet to go before we achieve true equity,” Weed said in the statement. “We will continue to prioritize making investments that will help eliminate disparities.”

Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, hosts an annual Education Summit, and the Senate recently passed racial profiling prevention legislation, Weed’s statement added. But since the report’s release, state politicians have given no indication that they will pursue specific legislative action to counter these disparities.

Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, said in a statement last week that he had not yet read the report.

“It’s not provable that people of color transgress more than white people,” said Stefano Bloch, a postdoctoral fellow in urban studies, adding that “disparities in criminalization may be largely unconscious.”

“Those in power are not allowed to be unconscious,” Bloch said.


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