www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 12 | PDF Version of this article

International Socialist Review Issue 12, June-July 2000

The color of justice

By Paul D'Amato

"And Justice for Some,' a new study from by Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, senior researchers with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency,1 reveals the strong racial bias in the way the criminal justice system treats Black and Latino youth. The report--sponsored by the Justice Department and several leading foundations--confirms what has long been known by ordinary Black, Hispanic and Native American people in this country: that minorities are more likely to be arrested, detained, prosecuted, tried, sentenced as adults (if juveniles), and imprisoned (and imprisoned longer) than their white counterparts.

The report comes at a time when youth have been demonized as 'superpredators' for several years in the U.S.--in spite of the fact that violent crime among youth has actually declined over the last several years. Between 1992 and 1997, 47 states passed laws that 'either made it easier to transfer youth from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system, that gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options, or modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions.' According to the study, 'minority youth are more likely than white youth to become involved in the [criminal or juvenile justice] system with their overrepresentation increasing at each stage of the process.'

The study also found that:

-- A greater percentage of African American youth are detained than white youth for every category of offense. White youth were 66 percent of those referred to juvenile courts but only 53 percent of those placed in detention. Black youth, on the other hand, were 31 percent of those referred (though African Americans are less than 15 percent of the population), but 44 percent of those detained.

-- Similarly, white youth were 66 percent of those referred to the juvenile justice system and only 44 percent of those detained in drug cases. Black youth, on the other hand, were 32 percent of those referred, but 55 percent of those detained.

-- Minority youth are one-third of the U.S. population, but they are two-thirds of the 100,000 juveniles confined in detention facilities and prisons.

-- Black youth with no prior admissions were six times more likely (and Latino youth were three times more likely) to be incarcerated in public facilities than white youth with no prior admissions when charged with the same offense.

-- Two-thirds of the 7,400 youth under 18 admitted in 1997 to adult prisons were minorities. Between 1985 and 1997, the number of people under 18 who were sentenced to adult prisons more than doubled from 3,400 to 7,400.

-- Though Black youth were 41 percent of cases processed through the juvenile justice system involving a juvenile charged with a felony, they were 67 percent of such cases transferred from juvenile courts to the adult criminal justice system.

-- White youth were 59 percent of all drug -related cases petitioned to be sent to adult courts, but only 35 percent of cases actually waived to adult courts. Black youth charged with similar offenses were 39 percent of cases petitioned for adult court, but 63 percent of cases sent to adult court.

-- As compared to a white juvenile who committed a violent crime, a Black juvenile is 18.4 times more likely to be sentenced to prison by an adult court, Hispanics 7.3 times more likely, and Asian Americans 4.5 times more likely.

-- In 1997, three times as many African American youth as white youth were sent to juvenile prison for a drug offense.

-- Black youth are more likely to be detained before trial than white youth, even for the same offense. Whereas 27 percent of African American youth are detained before trial, only 15 percent of white youth are detained. When the case involves drugs, 38 percent of African American youth are detained before trial, and only 16 percent of white youth are detained.

-- Seventy-eight percent of drug offense cases involving African American youth are formally processed through the judicial system, while only 56 percent of similar cases involving white youth are formally processed.

-- Nationally, custody rates for Black youth are 5 times as high as for white youth. For Latino youth, custody rates are 2.5 times as high as for white youth.

A chart at the end of the study sums up the grim picture: African American youth are 15 percent of the youth population. However, they are 26 percent of those arrested, 31 percent of those referred to juvenile court, 44 percent of those detained, 46 percent of those waived to criminal (adult) court, and 58 percent of those sent to state prison. The study concludes:

While 'Equal Justice Under the Law' is the foundation of our legal system, and is carved in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the juvenile justice system is anything but equal...Throughout the system, minority youth--especially African American youth--receive different and harsher treatment. This is true even when white youth and minority youth are charged with similar offenses. This report documents a juvenile justice system that is 'separate but unequal.'

The Myth of the Superpredator

The myth of the youth 'superpredator' was developed by right wing academics in the early 1990s, and quickly became mainstream fashion. The press has run with it, putting out stories of irredeemably depraved violent youth running rampant in our schools and streets. A January 1996 Time magazine article entitled 'Now for the Bad News; A Teenage Time Bomb' cautioned its readers, 'They are just four, five and six years old now, but already they are making criminologists nervous.'

This press hysteria has no correlation to fact. According to FBI crime reports, crime is negatively correlated to the number of men aged 15-24 in the population. That is, crime goes down as the number of young people increases, and vice-versa. In fact, 57 percent of all violent crime is committed by people aged 25 and older, and people over 18 commit 80 percent of all violent crime.

The superpredator hysteria provides the backdrop to the introduction of tougher legislation that allows states to try juveniles as adults, sentence them to adult prisons and, yes, even execute them. The Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997 lowered the age at which children can be tried as adults in federal courts to 13. The bill passed the House. Clinton opposed the bill, not because it allowed teenagers to be prosecuted as adults, but on the grounds that it 'fails to provide a comprehensive plan to crack down on youth and gang violence.' Last year, the Senate passed the 'Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999'--a bill introduced by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch--into law by a vote of 73-25. The law allows 14-year-olds--eighth graders--to be tried as adults for serious violent or drug-related felonies.

Forty states have changed their juvenile codes in order to impose mandatory minimum sentencing, try minors as adults, and strip confidentiality protections that had been conferred on minors for more than a century. Yet the youth murder rate (14-17 year-olds) peaked in the early 1990s, and has declined from 30 per hundred in 1993 to 16 per 100 in 1997.2

California recently passed Proposition 21, the 'Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act,' supported vigorously by Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The law permits youth offenders to be charged as adults, and imposes longer (sometimes mandatory) sentences. Membership in a gang, for example, is punishable by a six-month mandatory prison term. A recent Leadership Conference on Civil Rights study, 'Justice on Trial,' notes that 'California taxpayers have voted to spend an additional $1 billion for prison construction at a moment when youth violence is declining throughout the state.'

The impact of sending youth to adult prisons is to dehumanize and degrade them. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, youth incarcerated with adults are more likely to commit crimes again, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by prison staff and 50 times more likely to be attacked by a weapon than youth held in juvenile facilities. But from reading the New York Times, you might think it's the other way around. In 1997, the Times printed New Mexico Secretary of Public Safety Darren White's claim that 'when some of these kids are convicted as adults and put into our adult prison, they intimidate the older prisoners.'3

Youth crime--in particular, crimes related to a mix of frustration, drugs and guns--is a reality in America. But the violence among poor and working class youth is a response to their bleak social environment and their lack of economic prospects. The 'solution' on offer by politicians is to demonize them--especially Black and Latino youth--in order to tag them as superpredators, try them as adults and send them to prison where they are brutalized, beaten and dehumanized. Victim and predator are turned inside out. In America today, it is the economic system, the police and the judicial system which prey on poor youth, who are victims of a society that demeans and degrades them. In the words of Bill Ayers, author of A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court: 'The kids I talked to and met with would say quite articulately, ëI can get a gun in an hour. I can get a little packet of crack anytime. What I can't get is a bookstore, a school where I can take books home. I can't get a job.''

1 Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, 'And Justice for Some,' National Council on Crime and Delinquency, <

2 Jessica Portner, 'Author says fear of youth crime outstrips the Facts,' Teacher Magazine, March 3, 1999.

3 Quoted in 'Superscapegoating: Teen ësuperpredators' hype sets stage for draconian legislation,' EXTRA!, January/February 1998.

Too Little Justice

Below are excerpts from a new study, ³Justice on Trial,² released in May 2000 by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

On racial profiling

-- In Volusia County, Florida, in 1992, nearly 70 percent of those stopped on a particular interstate highway in Central Florida were Black or Hispanic, although only 5 percent of the drivers on that highway were Black or Hispanic. Moreover, minorities were detained for longer periods of time per stop than whites, and were 80 percent of those whose cars were searched after being stopped. The discriminatory treatment of minority drivers was duly noted by Volusia County Sergeant Dale Anderson, who asked a white motorists he had stopped how he was doing; the motorist responded ³[N]ot very good,² to which Anderson responded, ³Could be worse‹could be Black.²

-- The first assumption [by law enforcement] is that minorities commit the majority of crimes, and that therefore it is a sensible use of police resources to focus on the behavior of those individuals. This attitude was epitomized by Carl Williams, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police until his dismissal in March 1999, who stated in defense of racial profiling that ³mostly minorities² traffic in marijuana and cocaine. Superintendent Williams¹ assumption, shared by many, is flatly incorrect with respect to those crimes most commonly investigated through racial profiling‹drug crimes. Blacks commit drug offenses at a rate proportional to their percentage of the United States population: Black Americans represent approximately 12 to 13 percent of the U.S. population, and according to the most recent federal statistics, 13 percent of all drug users. And for the past 20 years, drug use rates among black youths has been consistently lower per capita than drug use rates among white youth.

-- [A] nationwide study by the United States Customs Service revealed that while over 43 percent of those subjected to searches as part of the Service¹s drug interdiction effort were Black or Hispanic, the ³hit rates² for those groups per capita were lower than for white Americans.

On drugs and incarceration

-- Between 1980 and 1995, the number of state prison inmates who had committed drug crimes increased by more than 1,000 percentŠ By the middle of the 1990s, 60 percent of federal prison inmates had been convicted of a drug offense, as opposed to 25 percent in 1980.

-- As the overall prison population has increased because of the war on drugs, so too has the percentage of minority Americans as a proportion of the overall prison (and drug offender) population. From 1970 to 1984, whites generally comprised approximately 60 percent of those admitted to state and federal facilities, and Blacks around 40 percent. By 1991, these ratios had reversed, with Blacks comprising 54 percent of prison admissions versus 42 percent for whites.

-- The predominantly white suburbs that encircle Milwaukee have all passed marijuana possession ordinances, whereby an individual found in possession of marijuana is ticketed, as if for a parking offense, but not charged with a crime. The City of Milwaukee, by contrast, charges marijuana possession as a crime, having rejected a proposed marijuana possession ordinance in the mid-1980s. As a result of these discrepancies, the Wisconsin Correctional Service concluded, non-whites were being charged with drug offenses 13 times more frequently than whites.

A lost generation

The United States has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, behind only Russia. Two million people are housed in American prisons. Although they comprise less than a quarter of the U.S. population, Black and Hispanic Americans make up approximately two-thirds of the total U.S. prison population. The percentage of prisoners who are Black is four times that of the percentage of Blacks in the U.S. populationŠ[T]he percentage of prisoners who are Hispanic is almost twice that of the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. populationŠIn order to grasp the enormity of these facts, consider that:

-- In 1995, almost one in three Black males aged 20-29 was on any given day under some form of criminal supervision‹either in prison or jail, on probation or on parole.

-- As of 1995, one in fourteen adult Black males was in prison or jail on any given day.

-- A Black male born in 1991 has a one in three chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life. A Hispanic male born in 1991 has a one in six chance of spending time in prison.

-- There are more young Black men under criminal supervision than there are in college.

-- For every one Black male that graduates from college, 100 Black males are arrested.

Back to top