After 10 years of trying to eliminate racial disparities in Oregon's juvenile justice system, it's unclear how much progress has yet to be made.
In Seattle, former gang member Tony McCain (pictured) told his story at a panel discussion on preventing youth violence at a forum presented by the Seattle Channel, CityClub and Town Hall, Nov. 10 at Town Hall in Seattle. The panel also included Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (SYVPI) Director Mariko Lockhart, Police Assistant Chief Jim Pugel, Urban League SYVPI Program Coordinator Jamila Taylor, and a member of the Seattle Police Department gang unit. The audience, which was made up of teens and young people, told personal stories and participated through the use of an interactive polling system.
Meeting annually, the Governor's Summit on Eliminating Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare System brings together thousands of people involved in the lives of often troubled youth. But looking at the continuing disparate treatment of young minorities at every level of the system – from arrests to referrals to detention to sentencing to foster care – it can be hard to know what good is coming of it.
Speaking to a packed room of policy makers and bureaucrats, Shay Bilchik says there personal and policy decisions that need to be made to shrink the disparities. The director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, Bilchik says destroying the link between foster care and the juvenile justice system would bring about a large amount of change. Ceasing to send juveniles into adult lock-up would also help reduce harm.
"Nationally, we have way too many kids penetrate the adult system," said Bilchik, who was a prosecutor for 15 years.
New research paints a picture of a system that sets up many poor minorities to fail, he said. Group foster homes increase "movement into delinquency;" social workers, educators and others are too quick to call the police when better options are available; "zero tolerance" policies push too many kids out of the school system; and some policies prevent foster kids from forming pro-social bonds outside of the foster system.
"You're unlikely to ever meet a leader that says they don't care about children," Bilchik said. "They way people express that seems to vary a good deal."
In order to begin to tackle a system that is overrepresented with minority children, Bilchik says there needs to be great transparency among government agencies; mobilized political leadership; a change in the culture at Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice; and changes in policies and increases in family resources.
Racial Impact Statements
Newly minted state Sen. Chip Shields says he has another tool to fight systemic inequity: the Racial Impact Statement. The proposed legislation would allow lawmakers to see the impact proposed laws will have on minority populations, through scientific analyses.
Democratic Iowa state Rep. Wayne Ford, introduced and helped pass similar legislation in his state last year – actually using much of Shields' language. The results have been promising, says Iowa's longest serving African American legislator. Visiting Portland from Des Moines, Ford says the racial impacts of nearly 20 bills have been evaluated.
When the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy came to Iowa to promote a bill that would "make things better … for the Black community" the Racial Impact Statement told a different story.
"I said, 'Ok Mr. Drug Czar, let me see the bill.' He gives me the bill, I wouldn't trust this, so it went for a minority impact statement. It went to the department of human rights, it want to the department of juvenile justice, it came back and … it was beautiful … they had it all broken down, and it said, 'If this bill was passed, it would do the opposite of what the intent was," Ford said.
The drug bill died in committee.
Sen. Shields said he plans to introduce the bill in 2010, once he's organized support in his caucus. The original bill was introduced in 2007, but failed to gather enough support. Ford is traveling to other states in the coming weeks to promote the bill as a way to combat unfair laws.
Shields says it's possible to increase the breadth of the legislation, by doing impact statements on women. Bilchik says there are an increasing number of girls and women moving from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system.
Shields would also like to see it analyze laws in other areas of public policy.
"Does this only have to apply to criminal justice issues, could it apply to child welfare policy or education policy?" Shields said. "It's going to take the community telling their legislators this is important."