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Jailing Minority Kids

Growing numbers of African-American youths are finding themselves within the juvenile justice system.  They are more likely to be detained, more likely to have their cases petitioned to go before a judge, more likely to be waived to the adult system and more likely to be institutionalized than their white counterparts. As noted in several studies, black youths are more likely to be detained than white youths, regardless of offense charged.

Indeed, according to 2001 official data, no matter what the most serious offense charged happens to be, black and Latino youths are far more likely to be detained than whites.  For blacks, the detention rate for all offenses is about five times that of whites and about double that for Latinos.  For index crimes against the person, the black detention rate is just over 5 times greater than whites, while the Latino rate is about 2 and one-half times as great.  The rate difference is the greatest for those charged with drug offenses: black youths are seven times more likely to be detained than white youths.  The importance of being detained cannot be denied, for studies have shown that those who are detained are far more likely to receive the most severe final disposition.  This last point is further underscored by commitment rates to youth prisons (2001 data).

Examining these commitment rates, we discover that the racial differentials are similar to detention rates.  Here we find that:

  • The overall rate for black youths is four times greater than for whites; the Latino rate is about one and a half times greater than whites;
  • Even when considering the offenses, these rates remain the highest for black youth in each case, with Latinos ranked second;
  • In the case of drug offenses, black youths were more than six times more likely to be committed than whites and Latinos were more than twice as likely as whites to be committed.

The ranking of both detention and commitment rates – blacks first, Latinos second, and whites last for each offense type – reminds us of a phrase heard repeatedly during the civil rights movement: “If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, stay back.”

It is apparent from the available evidence that juvenile detention centers and youth “correctional” institutions have become part of the “new American apartheid.”  What should be noted in particular is the rate differentials for drug offenses.  Part of this must be explained by examining who is targeted for arrest in the war on drugs.  Clearly, like their adult counterparts, black juveniles are the most heavily targeted.  A comparative look bears this out.  Whereas in 1972 white youths had a higher arrest rate for drugs than blacks, by the early 1980s (at roughly the beginning of the "war on drugs") the difference was reversed.  By 1995 the change was incredible: the arrest rate for black youths was almost three times greater than for whites!  During the period between 1972 and 1995 there was a more than 400 percent increase in arrest rates for black youth on drug charges. 

As the research by Jerome Miller (from his book “Search and Destroy”) has shown, young black males have received the brunt of law enforcement efforts to "crack down on drugs."  He notes that in Baltimore, for example, African-Americans were being arrested at a rate six times that of whites and more than 90% were for possession.

In Miller's study of Baltimore, he found that during 1981 only 15 white juveniles were arrested on drug charges, compared to 86 blacks;  in 1991, however, the number of whites arrested dropped to a mere 13, while the number of blacks skyrocketed to a phenomenal 1,304, or an increase of 1,416%!  The ratio of black youths to whites went from about 6:1 to 100:1.

Another study found that "black youths are more often charged with the felony when [the] offense could be considered a misdemeanor..."  Also, those cases referred to court "are judged as in need of formal processing more often when minority youths are involved."  When white youths received placements, such “placements” are most often “group home settings or drug treatment while placements for minorities more typically are public residential facilities, including those in the state which provide the most restrictive confinement.” Another study found evidence of substantial increases in minority youths being referred to juvenile court, thus increasing the likelihood of being detained.  But, cases of the detention, petition and placement of minorities nevertheless exceeded what would have been expected given the increases in referrals.  There has been an increase in the formal handling of drug cases, which has become a disadvantage to minorities. This study concluded that: “Given the proactive nature of drug enforcement, these findings raise fundamental questions about the targets of investigation and apprehension under the recent war on drugs.” As noted in a study of Georgia's crack-down on drugs, the higher arrest rate for blacks was attributed to one single factor: "it is easier to make drug arrests in low-income neighborhoods. Most drug arrests in Georgia are of lower-level dealers and buyers and occur in low-income minority areas.  Retail drug sales in these neighborhoods frequently occur on the streets and between sellers and buyers who do not know each other.  Most of these sellers are black.  In contrast, white drug sellers tend to sell indoors, in bars and clubs and within private homes, and to more affluent purchasers, also primarily white."

A recent publication by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention called Juveniles in Corrections noted that in 1999 minorities accounted for 65 percent of those placed in private juvenile facilities and 55 percent placed in public institutions nationwide. For drug trafficking, black youth accounted for 65 percent in juvenile institutions, compared to only 18 percent Latinos and 16 percent whites.  The custody rates were given for each state and there existed wide variations.  For the United States as a whole, the custody rate for black youths was 1,004 per 100,000 compared to a rate of only 212 for whites and 485 for Latinos. In other words, black youths are placed in custody (detention facilities and correctional institutions) at a rate that is about five times that for whites and more than double than for Latinos.  Custody rates for blacks range from a high of 2,908 in South Dakota to a low of 87 in Hawaii. 

What is often overlooked in the discussion of these recent trends is the impact these "get tough" policies and the "war on drugs" have had on women. The next section will review some rather disturbing trends in the incarceration of women offenders.

The Growing Incarceration of Black Women

One thing that cannot be overlooked in any analysis of women, crime and criminal justice is the interrelationship between class and race. Indeed, the vast majority of female offenders, especially those who end up in prison, are drawn from the lower class and are racial minorities. 

One specific example of the role of class and race is demonstrated in a very detailed study of a sample of women offenders in a court system in New Haven, Connecticut.  From a larger sample of 397 cases, this study focused in depth on a smaller sample of 40 men and 40 women who were sentenced to prison (that is, they went through all of the stages of the criminal justice process).  Of the forty women, twenty-four (60%) were black, five (12%) were Puerto Rican and the remainder (28%) were white.  Half of the women were raised in single-parent families, and only two of the women were described as growing up in "middle class households."  Most of these women were described by Daly as having grown up in families "whose economic circumstances were precarious," while in about two-thirds of the cases their biological fathers were "out of the picture" while they were growing up.  Only one-third completed high school or the equivalent GED (General Education Diploma).  Two-thirds "had either a sporadic or no paid employment record" and over 80 percent were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest.

The most dramatic illustrations of the lack of chivalry toward black and other minority women comes from examining who gets sentenced to prison.  And this has been, in recent years, a direct result of the "war on drugs.  As already noted, there is little relationship between race and illicit drug use, yet blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested and sent to prisonFor women, the poor in general and blacks in particular have been singled out.

While women constitute around 20 percent of all those arrested and only about six percent of those in prison, their numbers and their rate of incarceration has been dramatically increasing during the past twenty years.  As of December 31, 2002, there were 97,491 women in federal and state prisons (compared to only 8,850 in 1976), constituting 6.8 percent of all prisoners, versus 3.6 percent in 1976.  These latest figures represent an incredible numerical increase of more than 800% and their proportion among all prisoners increased by more than 75% during the past quarter century.  Moreover, the incarceration rate of women went from 8 per 100,000 in 1975 to 60 per 100,000 in 2002, for an increase of 650%.

If this is not bad enough, a large percentage of women sentenced to prison on parole violations have not committed any new crimes, but rather were returned for not passing their urine tests.  Moreover, the proportion of women sentenced to federal prison has zoomed upward because of drug offenses.  In 1989, 44.5 percent of women in federal prison were in for drugs, and this figure went up to 68 percent in just two years. (More than one-third of the women doing time in prison on drug charges had been convicted of drug possession.) About twenty years ago about two-thirds of women convicted of felonies in federal court were given probation, but in 1991 only 28 percent were.  Further, the average time served for women on drug offenses went from 27 months in 1984 to 67 months in 1990. 

Overall, the proportion of women offenders in prison because of drug offenses went from 12 percent in 1986 to 32.8 percent in 1991. In fact, the percentage increase in women sentenced to prison for drugs has been much greater than for men sentenced for drugs.  For instance, between 1987 and 1989 in the state of New York the number of women sentenced for drugs increased by 211 percent, compared to only an 82 percent increase for men.  In Florida, during the 1980s admissions to prison for drugs increased by a whopping 1,825 percent; but for female offenders this increase was an astounding 3,103 percent!

Much of the increase in women prisoners comes from the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the 1980s crackdown on crime.  Under many of these laws, mitigating circumstances (e.g., having children, few or no prior offenses, non-violent offenses) are rarely allowed.  One recent survey found that just over half (51%) of women in state prisons had one or only one prior offense, compared to 39 percent of the male prisoners.

Thus, this society's recent efforts to "get tough" on crime has had a most negative impact on female offenders, as more and more are finding their way into the nation's prison system.  As a matter of fact, largely because of the war on drugs, the number of new women's prisons has dramatically increased in recent years.  Whereas between 1940 and the end of the 1960s only 12 new women's prisons were built, in the 1970s a total of 17 were built and 34 new prisons were built in the 1980s (latest figures available).

These increases do not match the increases in women's crime as measured by arrests, except if we consider the impact of the "war on drugs" along with greater attention to domestic violence.   During this period of time there has been a very dramatic change in the criminal justice system's response to female drug use (as it has for all illegal drug use) as well as domestic violence.  In the latter case, such increased attention to domestic violence has led to an increase in arrests of women for both aggravated assault and "other assaults.”

The final part of this series will be devoted to an examination of the impact of the high incarceration rate of racial minorities on their families and communities.

Click here to read Part 1 of this series

Click here to read Part 2 of this series

Click here to read Part 4 of this series.

Randall G. Shelden and William B. Brown are Professors of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Western Oregon University respectively.  They have written several books on crime and criminal justice. This essay is part of a forthcoming book on the prison industrial complex. Shelden may be contacted via his web site:  A more detailed version of this series, including references and footnotes, can be found on this web site.



July 22 2004
Issue 100

is published every Thursday.

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