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State review shows disproportionate policing of Black youth

Building behind barbed wire fence
The Bon Air Juvenile Corrections Facility in Chesterfield County. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia’s legislative review agency, JLARC, recently released a comprehensive report on the state’s juvenile justice system.

The report found that over the past decade, Black youth in Virginia were about 2.5 times more likely than white youth to be referred to the juvenile justice system.

The racial disparity is greatest for referrals by law enforcement, but Black youth are also 1.7 times more likely to be referred to the justice system by schools – including school resource officers – than white youth.

There are also regional disparities in referrals. For example, in Alexandria, Black youth were 1.3 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system, whereas in Richmond they were 4.7 times more likely to be referred.

But JLARC doesn’t know what’s leading to these disparities in the referral process because they don’t have access to any qualitative data, including copies of the initial complaints that led youth into the system in the first place.

“Related to what the nature of the interaction is…the data doesn't have any of that information,” said Brittany Utz, an analyst with JLARC. “So we can't tell whether it's the nature of stopping someone on the street or a traffic stop or what that interaction looked like, we just know what the offense was for.”

Drew Dickinson, project leader with JLARC, says he’s not even sure if the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has this type of qualitative information. He says most likely, copies of the complaints themselves are only housed at the local level.

DJJ did not respond to questions about their data system by deadline.

Dickinson said DJJ is currently undergoing a federally funded review to look in more depth at the causes of disproportionality and referrals.

“We have a recommendation in the report for them to report out the findings of that more in-depth review on the causes,” Dickinson said.

The lack of qualitative data about racial disparities is disturbing to advocates like Valerie Slater, executive director for the group Rise for Youth.

“Why do Black kids keep ending up in the deepest end of the system, even when comparatively, it's not that they're just doing more things?” Slater said. “How do we address it [racial disparity] if we aren't even able to have the conversations with the youth themselves and families?”

JLARC told VPM News that structured interviews with youth in detention centers were not a part of their report.

Slater says that until the state gets to the bottom of what’s contributing to these disparities, it will be impossible to hold people accountable and make changes. She says judges, officers and court service unit staff should all be providing as much data and information as possible about what’s happening with youth.

“Whoever is a part of the system needs to shoulder the burden of telling the story because they are a part of the problem,” Slater said. “And you've got to be a part of the solution if you are a part of the problem.”

The JLARC report also recommended consolidating some youth detention centers in the state that are over-resourced and under capacity. At under populated facilities, education costs have remained “relatively stable over the past five years even as the average daily population has declined.”

The detention centers are locally run, so the state can’t unilaterally decide to close them. However, the state could pull funding that’s helping keep their doors open. The state pays for about one-third of operational and maintenance costs and 100% of educational costs at youth detention centers.

“We want to make sure that any cost savings that are acquired through closing facilities are reinvested in the Department of Juvenile Justice to meet the needs of court-involved youth,” said Rachael Deane, legal director of the JustChildren program with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Deane wants the state to use that money for quality youth programming, including mental health supports, educational programs and efforts to reduce recidivism.

According to the JLARC study, only five of 24 youth detention centers in Virginia – including the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center – are using evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism.

JLARC’s report also raised concerns about the quality of educational programming in youth detention centers, especially since the Virginia Department of Education ceased on-site monitoring reviews of these programs in 2016.

JLARC is recommending that VDOE resume these monitoring reports with extra funding to do so and that educational programming be offered in the summer.

“There's at least 18 other states that are providing an extended school year, and we feel like that could be a really beneficial change that could be made to educational programming,” Dickinson said.