Study reveals racial bias when kids run afoul of the law

Black youths are arrested at a rate more than three times higher than their white counterparts and detained at nearly twice the rate of white youths

By Christopher Williams
Sun Journal

LEWISTON, Maine — Black youths in Androscoggin County are arrested at a rate more than three times higher than their white counterparts. And black youths in this county are detained at nearly twice the rate of white youths, according to a report released Friday by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service.

A Portland lawyer who heads the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law pointed to the Lewiston school system as one feeder for youths of color into the justice system.

"Certainly, there was no surprise that Androscoggin County seems to have the highest arrest rate for children of color," said Christopher Northrup, a clinical professor at the law school.

"As far as we can tell, the Lewiston schools have been expelling a lot of kids, more than any other school system in the state," he said. "And many of the children they’re expelling are children of color. There’s a significant correlation between kids who are out of school and kids who get detained."

Although reforms of Maine's juvenile justice system are the envy of many states, disproportionate minority contact in this state remains a problem, the authors of the report conclude.

In only six of Maine's 16 counties were there enough minority youths coming in contact with police and the juvenile judicial system to be considered statistically significant. Of those six, the report says the minority youths in five of the counties experienced disproportionately high levels of contact with law enforcement and subsequent points in the state's juvenile justice system, but none as high as in Androscoggin County. 

The 55-page report also details observations shared by 28 youths and their parents during interviews over the past year that highlight their experiences, largely negative, with Maine's juvenile justice system. The report also offers recommendations aimed at fixing the problems.

In Auburn and Lewiston, as well as in the 12 surrounding towns in the county, black youths are charged with crimes at 1.3 times the rate of white youths, according to the report.

Yet, black youths in this county were diverted from the juvenile justice system at less than half the rate of white youths, meaning black youths are twice as likely to advance deeper into the juvenile justice system, instead of being steered away from the courtroom and into community intervention programs and other non-judicial avenues.

For their report, researchers measured the relative rates by county of blacks and whites affected at eight specific contact points in the juvenile justice system. They began with arrest (initial contact with law enforcement) and continued through referral (investigation), diversion (pretrial resolution), detention (pretrial youth jail), petition (formal charge), delinquency (conviction), probation and confinement (youth jail or prison.)

The report's three authors averaged the annual data from 2010-12 in an effort to establish rates of disproportionate minority contact for arrests of white youths, youths of color and black youths based on overall population. Researchers established rates for other stages of the juvenile justice system by drawing from smaller segments of the respective youth populations. In some cases, where long-term trends were studied, data dating back to 2005 were used. Data for youths from ages 10 through 17 were included.

The state's most populous county, Cumberland, has the third-highest arrest rate of black youths at 1.3 times that of white youths. York County is second, with a rate of black arrests at 2.5 times the rate of whites, according to the report.

Youths of color in Androscoggin and Cumberland counties were committed after conviction at twice the rate of white youths to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. That higher rate of disparity among nonwhite youths at the end stages of contact, including detention, is a new trend, the report says.

While the rate of arrests for nonwhite youths in Androscoggin County peaked in the most recent two years of the study at more than twice the rate of white youths, black youths were arrested at a rate more than three times the rate of whites.

By contrast, the arrest rate in Cumberland County for black youths compared to white youths has declined steadily over the past five years, according to the report.

In York County, black youths were arrested at a higher rate than white youths and that rate has shown an increase over the last three years of the study.


Although Maine holds the distinction of being the whitest state in the nation demographically, like most states, it shows disproportionate minority contact along the juvenile justice spectrum among its relatively small nonwhite youth population, according to the report.

The study has limitations: There is no breakdown of data by municipality or by ethnicity. In Lewiston, for example, where there is a significant Somali community, rates for black/African-American youths include Somali juveniles. The report doesn't distinguish between segments of the black population. The authors were bound by arrest data as they appeared in census categories collected by the Maine Department of Public Safety, which doesn’t provide ethnic distinctions within racial classifications.

The deeper they went into the juvenile justice system, the smaller the youth populations researchers were able to work with. For that reason, statistical significance becomes more difficult to show nearer to the end stages of the juvenile justice system. In some cases, the report's authors had to mix groups, such as blacks and African-Americans with other minority groups to achieve statistically significant findings. In other cases, there are no findings at all because of a lack of statistically significant data.

The report credits those who work in Maine's juvenile justice system, especially the Maine Department of Corrections, with key reforms over time, while pointing to troubling rates in racial disparity.

"Although Maine's system has been credited for its progressive reforms, contact with the juvenile justice system too often leads to poor outcomes into adulthood," the report says. "Thus, whenever safely possible, it is desirable to prevent youth from progressing toward subsequent contact points."

Aside from some downward trending rates for disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system in some counties, the good news in Maine juvenile justice system not highlighted by the study is an overall decline in numbers of juveniles in the system.

Two years ago, roughly 5,000 youths had contact with Maine's juvenile justice system. That number has dropped to about 3,000, noted one of the report's authors, Erica King, who is a policy associate in the Justice Police Program at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

"I am proud to work in a state and with colleagues who genuinely have the best interest of children at heart," she said. "And yet, juvenile incarceration is the biggest predictor of adult incarceration and has significant economic and social costs to youth and to taxpayers.

"Maine has the lowest incarceration rates of any of the 50 states," King said. "We have award-winning juvenile facilities and yet Maine, like other juvenile and criminal justice systems across America, is still part of a larger system that needs reform. There are proven risks of detaining youth and we must continue to invest in community-based alternatives, especially for young people who end up there because no one is willing and able to supervise, not because they are dangerous. They might have made some poor decisions, but they would be safe with support and accountability in the community with a reinvestment of resources."

King continued: "We're working increasingly to make sure that the kids that get secure facilities are the ones who need to be there and don't stay any longer than they need to. We want to have equity in our juvenile justice system and that's the result that I'm working for.  ... We want all juvenile justice system-involved youth to have a fair, equitable and responsive experience in the justice system regardless of geography, race, ethnicity, gender and demographics, so it's as consistent as we can make our system."


The report's authors, who presented their findings Friday to the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which commissioned the study, highlighted the higher disproportionate rate of minority detention, not only in those five counties represented in the study, but throughout Maine.

At a statewide level, black youths were detained at more than twice the rate of whites in the most recent year of the study.

A closer examination of the numbers behind the disparity in detention rates reveals a schism between blacks and whites rooted in the reasons for their respective detentions, the authors pointed out.

When researchers drilled down into the data, they found that demographics such as age and gender did not explain the disproportionate rates of detention. Researchers discovered that, while white youths were most likely to be detained for committing new crimes, black youths were more likely to be locked away pretrial on bench warrants and for technical violations, rather than for new criminal conduct. A bench warrant can be issued because of a missed court date or fine payment, for instance.

Edwin Chester, a Portland lawyer who serves as vice chairman of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, said Friday that more youths of color currently are being diverted after arrest. There's a specific reason for that, he said.

"The letters going out to parents saying: 'Your son's received a summons. If you come to an initial conference, we may be able to divert him from court,' we sent that out, but it turned out when we analyzed it, it was designed for a college-level education and it was in English," he said.

"So you send it to a family where the only person who speaks English in that family is that child. The parents show him the letter and he translates, 'Hey, it says I'm doing well in school,' and that letter just kind of goes into the void."

Since the data for the report was compiled, law enforcement departments have translated into several languages the letters that go out offering diversion, Chester said.

Chester noted that the low rate of diversion for youths of color, half that of whites, "was the most stunning of the bunch" of statistics. Today, the total percentage of arrests for all youths that are diverted from court is roughly 70 percent, a definite improvement, said Chester, who has represented juveniles in criminal cases for the past 35 years.


Researchers for the report interviewed, in groups and individually, 28 people involved in the juvenile justice system in an effort to get their impressions of each step of the process, starting with arrest.

Minority youths pointed to five factors that contributed to their initial contact with law enforcement, including:

* Peer pressure and association with the wrong crowd; lack of community supports with accessible structured programming coupled with trouble at school resulting in suspension and expulsion; targeting by the system because of race and ethnicity, especially in Androscoggin and Cumberland counties; not taking responsibility and engaging in poor decision-making; and lack of parenting at home and general financial hardship.

Researchers asked minority youths and their parents about their experiences with the juvenile court system. Four trouble areas were identified as:

* Preconceived notions about the youths led to predetermined judicial outcomes;

* Inattentive and unsupportive legal representation by defense attorneys who didn't pay attention to their needs and didn't communicate effectively;

* Lack of comprehension of the judicial process, made more difficult by language and cultural barriers; and

* Lack of support from their school administrators and teachers once they were in custody.

The report says: "Several youth expressed that they believe that white youth receive better plea deals and fewer commitments than youth of color, which is substantiated by quantitative data."

Most of those interviewed said they believed the judges had made up their minds before their court hearings were held.

Once youths are detained or committed at one of the state's two youth development facilities, different treatment of blacks and whites continues, said those who were interviewed.

They raised four points that were most significant for youths who were confined: complaint of differential treatment and access to services based on race; the importance of maintaining a good relationship with youth development center staff; committed youths lack necessary counseling and society re-entry support; and detained youths lack the same level of services available to youths who are committed.


After the authors compiled the data, collected the opinions of those interviewed and analyzed the results, they drew up a list of recommended changes to existing policies and procedures and suggested needed improvements or additions.

They urged stakeholders to:

* Develop, find resources for, and implement a racial equity plan across Maine's juvenile justice system;

* Create a youth and parent advisory committee to guide the plan;

* Invest in training staff and system personnel about bias across the juvenile justice system;

* Develop a workforce development strategy to diversify Maine's correctional workforce;

* Pilot data-driven strategies to promote racial equity in the juvenile justice system and monitor data to ensure desired results;

* Explore the relationship between school discipline and referrals that lead to contact with the juvenile justice system in Maine (sometimes referred to as the "school to prison pipeline"; and,

* Explore the degree to which differences in pathways to detention are the result of youth behavior or detention decisions.

No single solution can reverse the proven disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system found in the five counties that are at the heart of the report, the authors said.

“The causes and factors that contribute to disproportionality are layered and require a comprehensive, multidimensional and intersectional approach,” the report says. “Staying the course with such a plan requires vision, leadership, coordination and community partnerships."

Northrup endorsed the recommendation that would further explore the relationship between school discipline and referrals to the juvenile justice system.

"This is a problem that frequently starts in the schools and then flows out onto the streets," he said. "And when you have a disproportionality of children of color being removed from school, you are likely to have them disproportionately represented throughout the juvenile justice system."

The other recommendation Northrup said is key to equalizing youth populations in the juvenile justice system is training and education around the notion of bias.

"I think that’s huge because so many actors in the system feel they have no bias," he said. "They probably have no explicit bias, but if you look carefully at the way they conduct themselves, they do have bias. And until we can get those folks — and this is both in schools and throughout the system, defense attorneys included — ... to recognize that they do in fact have bias, that they’re treating children of color differently than they’re treating the white kids, we are going to have this problem."

Northrup teaches a class at the Portland law school on implicit bias, he said. "It's a tough class," he said. "It makes some people very uncomfortable to talk about this." 

King said: “In order to ensure that we have a fair and balanced justice system, we have to have honest, multidimensional conversations with race at the center. Youths of color already face structural barriers and disproportionate outcomes in communities, schools and other systems before they come to the attention of law enforcement and corrections. No one staff or agency is to blame for this, but we have a collective responsibility to close racial gaps.

"Youth of color come to the justice system with unequal needs," she said. "There is no real pathway to equity without examining and addressing that. Collectively, these findings give us the most comprehensive picture of what is happening with youth of color that we have ever had in Maine. It is critical to the mission of advancing racial equity to work in partnership with others who care about this issue, an advantage that Maine has with small numbers. One of the things that is encouraging about Maine is that, although we may have varied perspectives about root causes or solutions, we are willing to come to the same table to address it at the local level," she said.

Chester, with the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, said the report "pretty much reflects what I know about the system and what goes on in the system.” He said he thinks it's a good tool to use as the system strives to make continued reforms around the issue of race.

“Even though the numbers are kind of low here, I’m not at all uncomfortable taking this as the blueprint and working with it going forward,” he said.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories that examine juvenile justice issues in Maine and in the Twin Cities.

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