THE POLICE are four times more likely to physically arrest a Black teen than a White teen for a juvenile offense. But why is that? Do Black teens commit more serious offenses, are they hurt by biased policing, or both? A new report uses state court data to not only draw attention to racial disparities in Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system but also to analyze why they exist.
Massachusetts’ criminal justice reform law in 2018 has successfully limited the use of the juvenile justice system, placing new emphasis on diverting children away from the legal system. But the report released Tuesday by the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board shows that those who remain in the system continue to experience significant racial disparities.
The biggest disparities are at the “front door” – who has complaints filed against them, and whether those complaints are addressed through physical arrest or through a summons requiring them to appear in court. The report finds that some of the difference is likely due to Black and Latino youth committing more serious or dangerous offenses. But not all the differences can be attributed to those factors, leaving bias and police decision-making as another likely contributor.
The Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board is chaired by Child Advocate Maria Mossaides and includes political appointees, representatives of criminal justice agencies, and advocates. Melissa Threadgill, director of strategic innovation for the Office of the Child Advocate, said disparities in juvenile justice are nothing new, but what is new is the attempt to understand what’s behind them. “For years, there’s been a lot of different theories for what explains the disparities. We wanted to dig in and say what do the data say?” she said.
The implications are important because of the impact system involvement has on children’s lives. “There’s really significant research that demonstrates contact with the juvenile justice system can lead to bad outcomes for kids,” Threadgill said. The report notes that being physically arrested – placed in handcuffs in a police cruiser or a lockup – can be traumatic for youth, and in itself carries long-term negative emotional, physical, and social outcomes.
Mossaides said in a statement, “We know the harmful effects that any justice system involvement can have on kids, which is why best practice, as well as state law, recommends issuing court summons instead of placing a child in handcuffs or a locked facility whenever possible.”
The report looks at over 6,000 applications for complaints that the police filed between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. The numbers show stark racial differences. A juvenile can be brought into the system either through an arrest, where they are physically taken into custody, or a court summons, where they are given a notice to appear in court. Black youth make up 10 percent of the state’s juvenile population, but 19 percent of complaint applications, and 23 percent of custodial arrests. Latino youth make up 18 percent of the juvenile population, but 23 percent of applications for complaints, and 28 percent of custodial arrests.
Black youth were over three times more likely to be the subject of a complaint application and four times more likely to experience a custodial arrest, compared to a White youth. Latino youth were almost twice as likely to be the subject of a complaint and almost three times more likely to experience a custodial arrest than their White counterparts.
One limit to many studies that pinpoint racial disproportionality is that it can be hard to say whether that disproportionality is justified. For example, if Black and Latino youth are committing more serious crimes, they should be taken into custody at higher rates. This report digs into these questions, using data to analyze four possible reasons for the disparities: differences in the seriousness of the offense, differences in the type of offense, geographic disparities, and differences in police behavior and decision-making, which would include racial bias. Ultimately the report concludes that each is a factor.
There are racial differences in offense severity. Among the Black youth subject to a complaint, 53 percent of the complaints were for felonies, compared to 46 percent of Latino complaints and 37 percent of complaints among White youth. That translates to more arrests since the police are more likely to make a custodial arrest for a felony than a misdemeanor. But that did not explain the entire disparity in arrest rates. Looking solely at those subject to a misdemeanor complaint, 32 percent of Latinos and 28 percent of Blacks were arrested compared to 18 percent of Whites. Similarly, among those with felony offenses, a higher rate of Blacks and Latinos were arrested than Whites.
The report also looked at types of offenses, since weapons charges, like gun possession, and “person” charges, mainly violence, are the most likely to result in arrests because they threaten public safety. Again, Black and Latino youth were more likely to enter the system for these offenses. But that did not entirely explain the disparities, since within each offense type, Blacks and Latinos were also more likely to be arrested.
The report also found some geographic differences, but again not enough to completely account for the disparities.
The final question was to what extent police department or officer practices and individual bias result in youth being arrested rather than summonsed or diverted. The report wrote that there is not enough data to examine this in Massachusetts, but a review of national literature suggests bias is likely to be a factor. The bias could involve a department choosing to police certain neighborhoods or an officer exhibiting bias in their discretion to decide when to arrest a teenager rather than issue a summons or offer diversion.
“Our conclusion is there are a number of factors leading to disparities but certainly police practices can explain some of what we’re seeing,” Threadgill said.
The report makes recommendations related to expanding diversion and community-based programs, improving data collection and review, and standardizing police practices relating to things like when to issue a summons and when to arrest a juvenile.
Committee member Adam Gomez is a Springfield state senator who himself faced a criminal charge at age 17 and who co-chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities. Gomez abstained from voting because his staffer attended the final meeting instead of him, but he said the report makes clear that more work needs to be done to address bias in the system, and keep Black and Latino youth out of the system. “Our children deserve more programming than handcuffs,” Gomez said. “We need to make some major investments in that field.”
Gomez said there needs to be a focus on helping kids who do not have a strong support system at home. “We don’t want to criminalize unfortunate circumstances, we want to be able to give them a hand up and help these kids thrive in the Commonwealth,” he said.
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