“I think it’s important for us as a society to remember that the youth within juvenile justice systems are, most of the time, youths who simply haven’t had the right mentors and supporters around them because of circumstances beyond their control.” 

Q’orianka Kilcher

Law enforcement reported there were 71,723 juvenile arrests across the state of California in 2015. More than 77 percent of them, regardless of race or ethnicity, were referred to probation departments.

Among those who were ultimately charged, however, Black children were charged with a higher percentage of felony offenses than any other group.

In a recent report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie, indicated that on any given day in this country, nearly 53,000 youth are held in custody as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement and nearly one in ten of them are held in adult facilities.

Sadly, thousands of these young people are confined even before the courts have determined them to be delinquent. Even worse, many are being held for non-violent, low-level offenses—some of the behaviors for which they are held purportedly do not even reach a level of criminality, according to research.

Certainly, there are philosophical, cultural, and procedural differences between the adult and juvenile justice systems. Yet the Prison Policy Initiative reported many of the problems experienced in the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system as well and are desperately in need of reform. They include issues related to racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization.

Just as there is a disparity in regard to the application of felony charges against Black youth in California, this reality is reflected across the nation. The reported noted, “Black, Hispanic, and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities.”

These racial disparities are most stark as they relate to Black boys and American Indian girls. While less than 14 percent of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 43 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls in juvenile facilities are Black.

Although there are different types of juvenile facilities, two-thirds of these youth are confined in the most restrictive facilities. In other words, they are held in the juvenile justice system’s version of jails and some are actually held in adult jails.

Many believe choosing to hold young people in such restrictive conditions should be the option of last resort. Still others question whether many of these young people—nearly 8,000 nationally—should really be there.

National Institute of Corrections (NIC) guidelines appear to limit the detention of young people for low-level offenses. The NIC guidelines state, “…the purpose of juvenile detention is to confine only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders…pending legal action.” Yet, nationally, more than 5,000 youth are being held in detention and almost 2,000 more are serving sentences for even lesser offenses.

In February, HBO premiered “Notes from the Field,” a film adaptation of a 2015 play by highly acclaimed playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith. It explores the disparities of America’s juvenile justice system in direct correlation to the nation’s unequal education system as a whole.

Smith interviewed more than 250 individuals for the work and distilled the interviews down to what has been described as, “monologues by 19 real-life characters.”

To gain a more passionate and in-depth understanding how America’s school-to-prison pipeline has coalesced with a failed juvenile justice system and robbed far too many Black youth of their dreams and aspirations, see HBO’s “Notes from the Field.”

The full Prison Policy Initiative report, Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie, is available online at www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/youth2018.html.Stephanie Williams, Features WriterStephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.