In California, Race Gap Widens to Race Crater on Juvenile Transfer Policy

A true measure of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system compares the outcomes, at any or many points, for youths of a different race who’ve been accused of the same offense. That is not a data depth-level that Youth Services Insider has seen much information about.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released a slew of information about “direct file,” the process through which prosecutors can originate a juvenile’s case in adult court for certain offenses.

The reports do not chase the connection between race and outcome to that apples-to-apples offense level. But combined with data from the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, CJCJ brings into specific relief a disturbing trend in the state.

YSI-MB-PageDirect file has become a process used mostly for black juvenile offenders in California. And state-run juvenile training schools, the deepest end of California’s dwindling state juvenile justice system, are used mostly to hold Latino offenders.

In 2000, a state ballot initiative called Proposition 21 empowered prosecutors to directly file cases in adult court for juvenile offenders who are 16 and over and who are charged with the following offenses: murder, arson, robbery, rape and other sex acts, kidnapping, assault by means of force likely to cause great bodily injury, discharge of a firearm into an occupied building, drug offenses, escape from juvenile hall, violent felonies, and voluntary manslaughter.

There is also a more stringent set of offenses for which California prosecutors can directly file on 14- and 15-year-olds, including any gang-related crime or felony aided by the use of a firearm.

Prop 21 gives no specific instructions on the use of said discretion. In cases where prosecutors charge juveniles with those crimes, it is entirely up to them whether the case is filed in juvenile or adult court. [Note: there are certain sub-offenses, such as first degree for which state law presumes adult court jurisdiction.]

In the the early 2000s, black juveniles were already being transferred at a far higher rate than white juveniles. Over the past decade, a notable chasm has widened into a crater.

For every white youth directly filed into adult court by a prosecutor in 2003, there 4.5 black youths. In 2014, there were 11.3 black youths directly filed for every one white youth.

Many counties and states have seen racial gaps while they try to downsize the use of detention or juvenile commitment facilities. The overall numbers go way down, but the proportion of black youths in those facilities stays the same or goes up.

This is not that. Here are the rates (per 100,000 14-to-17-year-olds) of juveniles directly filed by race in 2003, just a few years after Prop 21 passed:

  • White: 10 per 100,000
  • Black: 46 per 100,000

Now, here is the rate in 2014:

  • White: 8 per 100,000
  • Black: 91 per 100,000

And what of the Latino population? The direct file ratio for Latino and white youths went from 2.4 to 3.3 during the time that the black/white ratio jumped from 4.5 to 11.3. So the gap widened, but not nearly at the same level.

But Latino youths continue to be a dominant group among the youths sent by counties to state-run juvenile justice facilities. The Department of Juvenile Justice’s footprint on direct juvenile justice services has shrunk since 2007, when legislative reforms decreed that counties could only send serious violent offenders to state juvenile facilities. The only other group in state facilities are juveniles convicted in adult court, who by state law must be in juvenile settings until they turn 18.

In 2011, 761 of the 1,118 juveniles in state facilities were Latino; 100 more than the number of black and white youths combined. At the time, YSI asked CJCJ Executive Director Dan Macallair what he made of that. He said that a number of counties in the central valley “send, frankly, their Hispanic kids” to DJJ. “That’s the dynamic that exists in a lot of these counties. Nobody says it like that, but that’s the flavor of it.”

Today, there are 682 wards in the custody of DJJ facilities through the juvenile system, and 381 of them are Latino.

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