How discrimination is sending more black kids to prison

By Andrea McChristian   

It’s usually a good thing to be No. 1. New Jersey, however, is a leader in two intolerable ways: Our state has the highest rate of black-white youth incarceration disparity and the highest rate of black-white adult state prison incarceration disparity in the country.

A black child in New Jersey is 30.64 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child, according to a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project. This is a rate double that of the second state on the list, Wisconsin.

As of January of this year, of the 222 youths incarcerated in New Jersey’s three youth prisons, 148 were black and just 13 were white. And as of June 1, the ages of our locked-up young people ranged from 14 to 24 years old. While the offenses that children are incarcerated for appear to vary from nonviolent to violent, according to the Juvenile Justice Commission, there is one constant: Most of the youths are black, even though research shows that black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates.

So what’s the root cause of the racial disparities?

Racial discrimination. These striking racial disparities reflect racially discriminatory circumstances that determine which kids get prison and which kids do not.

Any attempt to justify these staggering racial disparities based solely on their offenses speaks to our inability to address and redress the systemic racism which has led to their restraint. This is not about the individual. It is about a system that has existed for well over a century to strip childhood from black children.

This racialized approach to the confinement of black children has been a historical mainstay of our nation. From slavery and convict leasing, to the since-debunked “super-predator” myth of the mid-1990s, the inability of our system to see black children as children has erased their humanity and led to their criminalization. This has continued to present day, with recent research showing that black kids are often perceived to be older than their age, as well as less innocent and more mature.

This is a piece of the same system that criminalized and villainized crack cocaine users (largely black) but greeted opioid users (largely white) with compassion and treatment. We must channel this same compassion to our children of color. Our failure to do so has disproportionately funneled black children into the youth justice system.

One arena where this myopic view of black youths is playing out is in our state’s schools, where factors such as zero-tolerance policies and implicit bias have transformed classrooms into launching pads for confinement. A source of this problem is the ever-increasing presence of police in schools.

During the 2013-14 school year, almost one-fifth of New Jersey schools had sworn police officers; and with the recent passage of S-86, which authorizes additional trained special officers to police schools, this number has surely increased. This heightened police state in our schools has markedly harmed black youths: During the 2013-14 school year, black kids in the state made up 33.6 percent of school arrests and 31.1 percent of law enforcement referrals, while constituting only 15.2 percent of total enrollment.

The overpolicing of kids of color also extends beyond the classroom. In 2015, while black kids made up 14 percent of the total state youth population, they made up almost half of all arrests. High arrest rates of black youths are not only seen in counties with cities with large black populations, but also in regions where black youths make up a small portion of residents.

For example, black youths made up an estimated 13.9 percent of the total youth population in Gloucester County in 2015, but over 40 percent of total county youth arrests.

New Jersey’s failure to address the root cause of these disparities — racial discrimination — continues to trap our black youths in a cycle of incarceration for the rest of their lives.

We must stop condemning our kids of color, rather than our racialized system, for these intolerable racial disparities. To do so speaks little of their own guilt, but rather our misplaced inclination to blame black youths for their involvement in a flawed system of our own creation.

We should not be in first place for failing our kids.

Andrea McChristian is associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She is the primary author of “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I a Child,” a report on racial disparities in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system.

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