Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples

content-sidebar-weddingYouth of color experience the worst outcomes in every youth-serving system, including law enforcement, child welfare and education, the data show conclusively. This is due in part to unconscious or implicit biases that affect our understanding of individuals, based on their race and ethnicity, and cause us to alter our decision-making accordingly.

As decision-makers we are often oblivious to our own biases and the pervasive patterns of discrimination that exist within our agencies and institutions.

Many people reject the idea that race and ethnic disparities in youth-serving systems are caused by racism or bias. That’s because they think of racism only in terms of blatant acts of discrimination such as lynching, cross-burning and Jim Crow segregation.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

In the absence of those more blatant and incontrovertible examples of racism, many people think that the racism that may exist is the result of the random acts of a few bad apples.

But in this post-civil rights era racism has not disappeared. It has merely been transformed by colorblind practices that preclude us from noticing or talking explicitly about racism. By making conversations about race and racism taboo, colorblindness can mask the myriad ways that race and racism function today.

Modern racism is reflected in everyday behaviors in the form of microaggressions, e.g., verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs, insults, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages that can have a detrimental racial effect and can remain virtually invisible in a colorblind society.

Such behaviors can go undetected in part because of their subtlety. They allow the modern racist to argue they have no bearing on race whatsoever.

When one juvenile court judge stated he wouldn’t tolerate discrimination from anyone in his court, he was clearly expecting the racism would be tangible, easy to detect, not everyday behaviors from everyone in juvenile court, reflected in the differential application of policies and procedures and passed from one decision-point to the next.

In this way bias that is deeply entrenched in cultural norms of the agency and society can persist, virtually without notice.

Racism reflected in patterns of racial discrimination in every social institution is caused by more than the random acts of a few “bad apples.” Instead, it comes from the collective acts of individuals whose decisions are consistent with biases that are widely held throughout society, even by well-meaning people.

What is implicit bias?

According to the National Center for State Courts, “implicit bias is the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate below conscious awareness and without intention.” Explicit bias “reflects the attitudes or beliefs that one endorses at a conscious level.”

People make automatic associations between individuals and their stereotypical group characteristics due to implicit biases. We are inundated daily by messages throughout popular culture, e.g., news media, talk shows, reality TV, political speeches, comedy acts, movies, textbooks and jokes, that promote stereotypical images of all race and ethnic groups.

When I ask practitioners across the country about stereotypes, regardless of whether they live in Orange County, California, or Memphis, Tennessee, they recite the same stereotypes: Native Americans are alcoholics, blacks are criminals, Asians are smart and Mexicans are undocumented.

On a conscious level, we would avoid generalizing about groups in this way, but because implicit biases operate on an unconscious level, we can be caught off-guard by these stereotypes, which affect our daily decision-making.

The reason disparities in decision-making can go unnoticed is because biased decision-making creates a vicious cycle: In youth-serving systems, the more consistently decisions match the stereotypes, the more they are replicated within the agency and society in general; the more correct and natural the decisions appear; the less scrutiny they will undergo, and the more likely the outcomes — good or bad — will be used as the basis for later decisions.

Biases in decision-making have the potential to inform and therefore distort decisions at each step along the way. In this way biases and corresponding decisions become a normal aspect of agency and societal culture. The stereotypes that associate blacks with criminality and whites as basically neutral or good cause us not to notice or question the overrepresentation of blacks in juvenile justice and the relative underrepresentation of whites.

[Related: OP-ED: We All Have Responsibility to End Institutionalized Racism In Juvenile Justice Systems]

Decision-makers often don’t notice the discrepancies in their decisions because they think of themselves as well-meaning people who do not have racial animosity toward others.

But decision-makers in every youth-serving system are susceptible to bias that contributes to disproportionality because:

  1. racism doesn’t (necessarily) show malice;
  2. racist attitudes and actions are often unintended;
  3. racist attitudes can be unconscious, and
  4. modern racism occurs in the form of microaggressions.

Racism doesn’t show malice

Individuals think that because they don’t feel any racial animosity toward another group, they are not biased. The assumption that teachers, social workers, judges, police and probation officers are unbiased must be challenged because even individuals who “claim no prejudice” against blacks (or people of color in general) “discriminate in subtle but consequential ways.”

Racist attitudes can be unintended

According to colorblind ideology, the litmus test for racism is intentionality. Asserting that statements or actions can’t be racist unless they were “intended” as such will protect even the most obvious racist actions. In fact even though people don’t intend to be racist or are unaware of their biases, their actions can have a racial effect.

We all have unconscious biases

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of contemporary racism is unconscious or implicit bias. Our implicit biases will affect our decision-making whether we realize it or not. It affects our perceptions, the way we interpret the facts and the language we use to describe the “facts.” Anyone can be affected by bias; teachers, judges, law enforcement, probation officers, hospital staff, etc. Despite our best intentions, “few can escape the cultural and cognitive forces that promote racial bias.”

Racism in institutions occurs in the form of microaggressions and rarely as blatant and incontrovertible acts of discrimination.

How implicit bias can preserve systems of inequality

Race and ethnic stratification that existed prior to the civil rights movement persists today, more than 30 years after the historic laws of racial exclusion were ostensibly eliminated. This is true in part because implicit bias distorts how facts are interpreted, resulting in vastly dissimilar outcomes in identical circumstances.

Implicit biases can distort the assessment of a youth’s delinquency, dangerousness and their risk of reoffending. That can result in the detention of one youth for the identical offense for which another was released. In child welfare, white and black children with identical risk factors have different outcomes: White children are more likely to receive family in-home services and black children are more likely to be removed and placed in foster care.

In hospitals and emergency rooms, the attitude of the mother can be perceived as evidence of risk to the child. White families are expected to advocate on behalf of their children but advocacy by black parents can easily be perceived according to stereotypes, e.g., aggressive, hostile and “poor parenting skills.”

These stereotypes and corresponding implicit biases can cause child welfare and hospital staff to judge black parents as uncooperative with decision-makers and therefore working against the best interest of their children. When decision-makers perceive families or youth as uncooperative, that perception is likely to be encoded into case notes, affidavits and court records.

Racially coded language recorded in reports are shared and passed from one decision point to another within and between systems. Judges have stated that as they became more aware of implicit bias they could identify how language in court reports signify race.

For example, in cases where decision-makers can use the benefit of the doubt to render a decision involving drug use, a white mother is often reported as having “no drug involvement,” whereas a black mother is reported as “mother alleges” or “mother reports no drug involvement.” It is easy to see how the use of racially coded language creates bias at one decision point that gets passed to another.

Based upon the choice of words, one mother has essentially been cleared of suspicion of drug involvement while another is placed under greater scrutiny and will have a hurdle to overcome. Bias encoded in language becomes the baseline for decision-making at every subsequent decision point and will impact how children and their families are perceived and therefore how they are served within systems.

Because implicit bias can easily go undetected, usual practices that appear neutral to race must be examined for their potential to promote and mask biases.

How implicit bias interacts, compounds within, across youth-serving systems

Implicit bias can:

  1. Inform discretionary decision-making, assessments of risk and reoffending, and how sentences and adjudication are determined.
  2. Result in the differential application of policies and procedures; for example, identical offenses can be perceived and managed differently due to differences in perception caused by implicit biases.
  3. Contribute to how discretionary laws and policies are applied and enforced, such as arresting preschool children who are having tantrums and labeling their age-appropriate behaviors “outbursts of violence.”
  4. Affect the language we “choose” and language we read in reports and affidavits, e.g., labeling white mothers as “upset” and black mothers as “angry” in identical circumstances. Bias in the use of language can affect decisions resulting in detention in juvenile justice or removal or reunification in child welfare.
  5. Inform ambiguous charges of delinquency such as willful defiance (bad attitude, rolling eyes, using profanity), or discretionary charges of low-level offenses like jaywalking or indecent exposure (e.g., sagging pants), which can be the reason some youth have increased contact with the system while others who commit similar offenses do not.

Rita Cameron Wedding, Ph.D., is the chair of the department of Women’s Studies and a professor of Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies at Sacramento State University. Her curriculum “Implicit Bias: Impact on Decision-Making,” has been used to train judges, public defenders, practitioners in child welfare, juvenile justice, law enforcement and educators since 2005. As faculty member for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, she has trained judges at court improvement initiatives in 40-plus states. She has provided expert testimony before the U.S. Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. Email her at

More related articles:

OP-ED: Systemic Racism Overwhelms Our Culture

OP-ED: Fraternity Chant Shows How Racism Infects Organization

Listen to the White Southerner: Zero Tolerance in Schools Is Racist

1940s Series of Paintings Sheds Light on New Era of Unrest

“One-Way Ticket”

I pick up my life
And take it with me
And I put it down in
Chicago, Detroit,
Buffalo, Scranton,
Any place that is 
North and East —
And not Dixie.

I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is 
North and West —
And not South.
I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.
I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket —
Gone up North,
Gone out West,

—Langston Hughes

NEW YORK — The judge sits above the two defendants, both faceless black men seen from the back, standing so close together their jackets blend. It is hard to tell where one man begins and the other ends. The white judge is almost a cartoon character, his misshapen head sitting atop his dark robes. A cartoon judge dispensing cartoon justice, with catastrophic consequences for faceless defendants.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoA narrow shaft of light from a green lamp illuminates what could be some documents or briefs. His demented, impossibly large googly eyes are fixed there, while he seems indifferent to the two men below him. The prisoners wait for this powerful figure to decide their fate.

“Among the social conditions that existed which was partly the cause of the migration was the injustice done to the negroes in the courts,” reads a dispassionate caption next to the painting of the judge and his defendants.

This scene of racially corrupt justice is one of many that illustrate the role a racist and rigged criminal justice system played in influencing this staggering movement of black people from the rural cities to the urban north and Midwest. It is one of 60 paintings by Harlem artist Jacob Lawrence that until recently was being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Langston Hughes' poem "One-Way Ticket" welcomed visitors to the exhibit.

At 23, Lawrence documented in rough brush strokes one of the largest migrations in the history of mankind when more than 6 million black people fled the South to come to northern cities.

From 1940-41 Lawrence researched and worked on a series he called simply “The Migration Series.” It tells the story of black families fleeing violence and looking for better economic opportunity.

Normally, the 60 panels are split between New York and Washington, D.C., with all the even-numbered panels at the Museum of Modern Art and the odd-numbered ones at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

MoMA had assembled all the panels for the first time in two decades as part of a deeper exploration of this momentous and tumultuous period in American history in an exhibit called “One-Way Ticket: The Jacob Lawrence Migration Series and other Visions of the Great Movement North.” It was an exhibit that touched the young people who got to see it.

“Teenagers are always drawn to the judge,” said Calder Zwicky, assistant director of teen and community partnerships. “They feel that sense of power he has over these two guys. He’s sitting up there with the bulging eyes looking down. He can do whatever he wants to these guys. Young people get that feeling, that feeling of helplessness, whether it’s a principal at school who won’t listen to their side of the story, or a cop in the street stopping them for no reason. They really instinctively respond to that sense of helplessness.”

Calder Zwicky, assistant director of teen and community partnerships.
Calder Zwicky, assistant director of teen and community partnerships.

There is a fierce urgency to Lawrence’s work, something MoMA organizers said they saw firsthand in the tours they gave to city youths. The panel of the judge, more than others, seemed to draw black youths to it. They often stood mesmerized, almost in a trance. When asked why that one painting, more than others, their response was often: “That’s how I feel.”

Shellyne Rodriguez, a MoMA community and access educator, remembers one tour of black and Latino young people in their late teens and early 20s shortly after the exhibit opened. One young man stopped at panel 14, fixated on the the demented judge and his bulging eyes.

“We always end up at the judge,” Rodriguez said. “I remember he turned to me and asked, how is that things can change and still stay the same?”

It is a question that shows Lawrence’s power.

Another member of the group, a girl, described an encounter with a police officer. He stopped and frisked her near her apartment in Harlem.

“The white cop told her, ‘I’m sorry to do this to you but the boss needs his numbers,’” Rodriguez recounted. “Of course the injustices of the present come up during the tours. It’s our history, and so much of it is still the same. … These stories are our stories, that history is our history.”

The full exhibit "One Way Ticket" is available to view on MoMA's website.
The full exhibit "One-Way Ticket" is available to view on MoMA's website.

Kerry Downey, Rodriguez’s colleague at MoMA and a fellow artist and educator, also gives tours and has been struck by how easily Lawrence’s paintings speak to the problems animating the present.

“The strongest takeaway I’ve had is how the conversation Lawrence starts is relevant to what’s happening today,” Downey said. “You can turn on the news and see it playing out. … This conversation also brought us to police abuse and how they employ racial profiling. Many students really opened up about that sense of your skin color being equated with a threat by people in power, and that sense of feeling invisible that comes with that.”

Lawrence’s series takes a sweeping look at the racial and cultural atmosphere that blossomed as the monumental demographic shift that began early in the 20th century and ended in 1970 changed the face of the country.

In his 1920 book, “Negro Migration During the War,” Emmett J. Scott wrote, “They left as if they were fleeing some curse.” Lawrence’s paintings capture that sense of almost apocalyptic desperation.

[Related: After Decades of Spending, Minority Youth Still Overrepresented in System]

The exhibit feels at times like an illustrated doctoral dissertation, but with the artistic resonance of an early Renaissance fresco.

Lawrence’s brush chronicles everything from the mad rush for the trains to the rotting crops left behind in untended fields as black farmers fled lynchings, arbitrary treatment from police and courts, mistreatment by white farmers who ran the tenant system and daily degradation under the terror of Jim Crow. He showed a new life in the burgeoning cities in the North, the influential role of the black press in encouraging people to abandon the South and the letters black migrants sent back to the South about their new lives.


The paintings are deceptively simple. Each manages to capture a moment that is at once intimate, one person’s experience, and simultaneously on a staggering scale.

“One of the reasons the show is powerful is that it allows us to have a conversation not just about art and history,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s also about issues that get glossed over in traditional history lessons — police violence and the legacy of the American justice system. All of these are things affect us intensely right now. People want to talk about them.”

Seydou Horvilleur, 17, is visiting New York City from France, staying with an American family. Horvilleur, who is black, said he was cautioned by his host parent to not challenge any police officers if they stop him for any reason. He said she was more worried about what could happen to him in an encounter with a member of the New York Police Department than with a common criminal.

“We don’t learn much about the black American experience in Paris and the rest of France,” he said. “I always thought that they left for economic reasons. But I just read that they were running from the South because they didn’t feel safe. And it seems a lot of what is happening here in New York and across the country is that black people are out there saying the same thing — that they don’t feel safe.”

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Learn more about Disproportionate Minority Contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about Disproportionate Minority Contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


“Mommy, mommy,” a little girl shouts, running up to Lawrence’s 22nd panel in the series. “They’re in jail! Why are they in jail, mommy?”

“You are right, honey,” the girl’s mother replies. “They were arrested.”

“Why?” asks the girl, Ranii Reed, 9.

“I don’t know,” her mother Tash Reed, 35, responds. “I don’t know.”

Lawrence’s 22nd painting depicts three black men in threadbare jackets seen from the back. They’re handcuffed with gold shackles to one another and staring out a barred window. The caption, in Lawrence’s dry matter-of-fact tone, reads: “Another social cause of the migrants leaving was that at times they did not feel safe or it was not the best thing to be found on the street late at nights. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.”

Reed tries to explain to her daughter the best she can that people who looked like her did not always get a fair shake in the old days. But it’s hard; her daughter is young and has trouble understanding.

Reed was visiting the museum from Winter Haven, Fla. She said the exhibit made her think about her family’s journey. It’s something she can’t tell her daughter, because she doesn’t know herself.

“I don’t know where we came from,” Reed said, looking around at Lawrence’s paintings. “It’s amazing to see what the artist did, to try to teach us about ourselves.”

She said seeing the paintings of desperate people caught up in the mass exodus makes her think about the struggles people still face today.

“You see how poor they are,” she said. “Most look like they didn’t have too much of anything. It makes you think about how things have gotten better, but also about how much it hasn’t. You look at these paintings and you know there are people out there, poor people, that are still out there. A lot has changed, a lot has changed but it hasn’t changed enough.”

in2318_25_pressFrinsel Guillaume, 29, had a similar visceral reaction to the exhibit. Guillaume, who lives in Jersey City, N.J., said he sees echoes of the paintings outside his window.

“I see it all the time,” he said. “It’s a common occurrence with kids in my neighborhood. Police have been patrolling my neighborhood all summer throwing kids against the wall for nothing.”

He, too, was drawn to the scene of the judge.

“There’s just this incredible sense of injustice,” he said. “It’s the same injustice you see today. There’s these two young people versus one judge. You know they don’t have a chance whether they’re guilty or innocent. And you can’t see their faces, you can only see the color of their skin.”

Now with the country in the grips of a tense national conversation over what — if anything — can be done to curb police violence in black communities, Lawrence’s exhibit ends on a troubling note. Millions of black residents fled terror for freedom. Their descendants are residents of the big cities like New York City.

The last panel of the exhibit shows a crush of faceless black figures standing at a train station. It could be anywhere — the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Tennessee — waiting to be delivered to new lives in new towns.

Guillaume somberly shakes his head as he stares at the crush of people. “At least they had somewhere to go,” he says aloud to no one in particular.

Lawrence’s caption to his final painting reads: “And the migrants kept coming.”

What Lawrence never answers is what happens when the migrants finish their journey but realize that the injustice continues. Where do you go to buy your next one-way ticket? And where is the destination if there is nowhere left to go?

More articles related to this one:

Opinion: Time to Take Closer Look at Race in Juvenile Justice System

Brooklyn Youth Justice in the Hands of Teens

Opinion: Overcoming Hopelessness for the Next Generation

After Decades of Spending, Minority Youth Still Overrepresented in System

YOC_editorialseries_graphic-01For more than 25 years, the U.S. Department of Justice has given hundreds of millions in grants to states to reduce the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system, yet youth of color still appear in disproportionate numbers in many areas of the system.

According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention analyzed by JJIE, black youth between the ages of 10 and 17 made up 17 percent of all children in that age group in 2010, but comprised 31 percent of all juvenile arrests, 40 percent of detentions, 34 percent of adjudications (guilty determinations), and 45 percent of cases transferred to adult criminal court.

Click here to read more articles about youth of color in the juvenile justice system.
Click here to read more articles about youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

The percentage of black arrests and adjudications has actually increased in the last 20 years. In 1990, black youth were 15 percent of the entire youth population, but they made up 27 percent of juvenile arrests, 33 percent of adjudications and 40 percent of detentions. The only area that saw improvement by 2010 was in transfers to adult court, where black youth comprised 49 percent of transfers in 1990.

The OJJDP also uses another measurement to determine the level of disproportionate contact for youth of color, known as the Relative Rate Index or RRI, which looks at white youth contact at several points in the system and compares that to minority contact. White contact is assigned the number 1 and anything above 1 would be considered disproportionate or overrepresented. A 1 to 1 ratio would indicate that white and minority youth are appearing at equal rates in the system.

RRI_adjudicationsRRI data from OJJDP from 1990-2010 shows that minority youth are still overrepresented in many areas. However, detentions did fall from 1.6 in 1990 to 1.4 in 2010, and waivers fell from 1.7 to 1.4. Adjudications of black youth remained the same at 0.9, but arrests increased from 2 in 1990 to 2.1 in 2010, indicating that arrests of black youth are still occurring at twice the rate of white youth arrests.

These numbers may be disheartening to many who work to reduce the disproportionate number of minority youth in the juvenile justice system, especially given that OJJDP has awarded hundreds of millions to states since 1988, when Congress mandated recipients of formula grants have plans to address disproportionate minority contact, also known as DMC. The law was later amended in 2002 to address the disproportionate number of minority youth who come into any contact with the juvenile justice system and are not just in confinement.

Millions Spent

It's impossible to know the exact amount of government funds that have gone toward reducing DMC since 1988 because addressing minority contact is only one of four criteria that states must comply with when vying for formula grants. What's more, once states receive the grant, it's up to them to determine how much is spent on DMC reduction efforts.

hub_arrow_update-01To get a general sense of how much money is involved, consider that OJJDP has given more than $600 million in formula grants and other grants that have DMC components from 2007-2013 alone. The agency also spends time assisting states in training, technical assistance and evaluations.

Although OJJDP gives "strong recommendations" to states on how they should spend their formula grants, the amount devoted to DMC reduction efforts varies by state, said Andrea Coleman, OJJDP's DMC coordinator. Some states allocate 80 percent, while others will set aside 20 percent or 15 percent, she added.

RRI_DetentionsThe agency requires those seeking formula funds to follow their DMC Reduction Model, which begins with identifying the extent of DMC using the RRI formula, assessing what's contributing to DMC and implementing plans to reduce DMC through the use of diversion, alternatives to confinement, training or procedural changes. The final phases of the model include evaluating how effective their actions have been, monitoring to see if data reflects changes to DMC and making adjustments based on the data.

This model is often far too general, said James Bell, the founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity in the juvenile justice system.

"The statute that they're working with says that the OJJDP shall address DMC," Bell said. "OJJDP has gotten much better over time, but when we first started, literally ‘address’ could be you and I go together to a salad bar and talk about it. If I don't want to do anything, what I'll do is address it by giving 10 grand to a professor at a local college to come up with a study, and then put on a conference next year, or maybe an MLK breakfast."

Bell said what's lacking is direction from OJJDP to look at DMC at a local level, in counties, cities, police departments and schools. The agency has also been overly focused on getting communities to learn and calculate the RRI in their community, which Bell said doesn't provide the full picture of inequality.

"You have to analyze crimes in specific communities. Sometimes the problem is not racism or poverty. Sometimes the reason for DMC is they've set up a system that couldn't help anyone," Bell said. "It could be something as simple as when that jurisdiction holds court, whether it’s on a morning calendar or an afternoon calendar."

graphic2-01One of the failings of the federal grant process to reduce DMC is that it's not clear where the money has been spent on a local level, added Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas in Dallas who has researched DMC. Success stories are also isolated, and solutions are hard to extrapolate because what may work in Santa Cruz may not work in Philadelphia or Orlando, he added.

"Just because you throw money at a problem, doesn't mean it will solve the problem," Piquero said. "Dollars have to be spent wisely. We need to figure out why these statistics emerge the way they do and spend careful attention on why these kids offend at different rates or for different reasons and how the systems deal with them."

Working with Police

The OJJDP data over the last 20 years clearly shows arrests have the largest level of minority overrepresentation, however OJJDP formula grants don't affect police departments because they are funded through other sources that don't have DMC components. A local police department doesn't have as much incentive to work on DMC reduction efforts as other entities that get OJJDP formula grants, experts say.

It's often difficult for states to build relationships and work with police departments to gain enough trust to allow them to go in and study the issue, said Michael J. Leiber, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and the former chair of Iowa’s DMC Committee. That's why many of the studies of the DMC mandate have not included police and focus instead on the courts, he added.

"It's up to the police to say I'll let you in," Leiber said. "I'm not defending the police, but they are jumped on all the time for police brutality and racial profiling. They're sensitive about people coming in to study them and feel they would be attacked. For a researcher to get in is very difficult."

OJJDP has recognized that there is a need to focus on the front part of the system, DMC Coordinator Coleman said. It was only until 2002, when the law was broadened to disproportionate minority contact, that OJJDP was able to legally address arrests, she added. Prior to that their efforts were focused on correctional facilities.

Coleman cites an example in Connecticut where the state has looked at DMC arrests since 2005 and developed a training curriculum for patrol officers. Police departments who sent officers to get certified in the training would then be eligible to apply for OJJDP formula grants for police and youth community service projects. The state has seen a 40 percent reduction in black youth arrests since 2006, she said.

"It's only been in probably the last three years that states have really started to concentrate looking at disproportionality in arrests," Coleman said. "I think over the next several years, we'll start to see those numbers come down at the front part of the system."



OP-ED: The Victim, the Bully and the Outsider

John LashIn prison I could often tell who would be a target for victimization. I developed this ability the old fashioned way, through observation. Predators abound in that world, so opportunities to witness their attacks were common. Whether it was robbery, rape, extortion or some other attempt to dominate those who were on the losing end had often had something in common.

According to the convict code the victims were “weak.” This isn’t surprising, since the code was created by those with an interest in perpetuating such crimes. The truth wasn’t that the victims  were weak though, instead I see now that they were different somehow. They didn’t fit in, didn’t make friends easily, and didn’t elicit much sympathy from bystanders.

The same dynamic is at play in bullying, whether in schools or the workplace, where the number one risk factor for being a victim is, again, being different. When we consider the nature of systems, which to some extent have to be invested in self perpetuation, this isn’t really surprising. Widely divergent groups, from yogic vegans to Rush Limbaugh fans, employ similar tactics to maintain group conformity and distance themselves from outsiders, though obviously these don’t always take the form of violence.

Keep these examples in mind, and reflect that our society is a group as well, and like other groups it works to maintain a status quo. And, again like other groups, some people are more “in” than others. Some people are more likely to be picked on. Consider the criminal justice system, including the portion that applies to juveniles. Blacks are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites, up to six times as likely in recent years. Other groups that come in for rough treatment include homosexuals, the poor, the uneducated and those suffering from mental illness.

Falling into any of these categories, or God help you more than one, increases your chances of being arrested, being convicted, getting a longer sentence (and being less likely to be diverted) and being less likely to be paroled. These same groups are impacted disproportionately by other ills as well, including homelessness and violence.

This kind of structure is so deep as to be almost invisible to the larger society, and largely passes unnoticed as anything other than the way things are. White collar criminals who steal millions often end up doing less time than petty thieves. Homeless users of crack do more time than celebrities snorting cocaine. On and on the imbalance and injustice goes, pointing to deep levels of hypocrisy not only in our criminal justice system, but in our society as a whole.

In bullying prevention work one of the most effective strategies is to engage bystanders. Most bullying behaviors occur in front of others, who may sometimes egg on the bully but more often just stand by and do nothing, relieved perhaps that they are not the victim. Bystanders may in fact blame the victim for being different, and sense somehow that they have brought their situation on themselves.

A little education can change this though. Just pointing out to people that victims don’t deserve what is happening to them, and encouraging bystanders to speak up or go get help can radically lower the incidence of bullying. Can something similar be accomplished in the larger realm of our society, where much of the behavior is unconscious and invisible to the unaffected? I think so, and I encourage you to spread the word.

Looking Back and Casting Forward: An Emerging Shift for Juvenile Justice in America

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers - the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides - some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation.

Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system.

Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).

So in saying she would lasso the needed parties to lessen the numbers entering the corrections populations, and continuing the pitch to rid Cook of the juvenile system as currently set up, Preckwinkle made news. The numbers, so often repeated, were underscored in her talk: “The last time I checked,” she said, “68 percent of the people in our jail were African American - or double their proportion in the overall county population. Translated, she is attempting to answer a criminal justice and societal problem that has stymied policymakers, academics and law enforcement, among others, for decades.

And yet, like so much news at the turn of the year, it was swallowed by national news of tragedy, the fiscal crisis and President Barack Obama’s cabinet changes, and the play didn’t last long.

Also struggling to gain traction was a push by advocates, politicians and the courts to tip the balance of juvenile justice away from harsh punishment to rehabilitation. But to do so, Preckwinkle’s promise to fix local correction’s racial imbalance, weighted so heavily against blacks and Hispanics, would have to be addressed.

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute

In Shelby County, Tenn., the problem was so profound it recently invited a federal settlement to remedy it. Still, the problem of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) continues to plague minority populations.

DMC, the racial tilt of the criminal justice system, is a long-running issue for many civil rights and advocacy organizations who have put out conflicting studies over the years that compete over the reasons, including low educational achievement and high unemployment among minorities, and urban environments with more open-air criminal conduct where the crime is more easily spotted by police (unlike in suburban and rural areas).

“For so long we’ve invested in building up these institutions (jails, juvenile courts, detention centers) at the detriment of investing in communities and social services, especially in the neighborhoods where [detained] folks are coming from,” said Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute, a national non-profit aiming, with law enforcement and community leaders, to erase racial disparity. “And that’s not a productive way of engaging your citizenry. We as a society really need to invest in education, housing infrastructure, etc., because that investment matters, as we see on the justice side.”

The trick is to speed the process and, perhaps, start to eradicate a stain on the system – one that has drawn an increasing volume of suits, legislation, and community pushes to inject balance in a system that too often spins out black and Hispanic minors who are further traumatized by prison, highly unemployable, and lacking a decent education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Cycle of Poverty, Incarceration Systemically Tied

Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.

A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.

The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.

As it is, about 250 youth are locked up in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Roughly 80

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute.

percent of that population is black - and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.

"Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?"

Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.

"It's not necessarily true," she said, "that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you're more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race."

Balancing Justice

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized the disparity, and taken measures to address it, be it for drugs or other felonies that could land youngsters in adult court. But it’s been a tough, often losing fight.

For example, take drug arrests of minors – a push to tackle a problem that quickly drove incarceration rates up dramatically. But recent studies show states’ recent decriminalization of some use of marijuana – including in California – has already resulted in a downward spiral in youth crime rates.

Already, pot bars are starting to grow up in that state, while others consider following its lead, and still others, including Illinois, are working on laws to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. Also, cops in Chicago have started focusing on greater stashes to justify arrests – meaning fewer people are arrested, and therefore jailed.

Indeed, in California, 2011 saw a 61 percent drop since 2010 of youth arrests for marijuana possession, according to a recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The new state law reducing that offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction directly affects juvenile detention numbers, as drug arrests are the leading cause of youth confinement.

What remains to be seen is whether the racial and ethnic disparities of those arrests will also drop. Experts hesitate to be too optimistic considering the institutionalized disparities in America’s juvenile justice system. As with most crimes, minorities aren’t more prone to drug use or drug possession than whites. Nevertheless, minorities count for a disproportionate number of drug arrests.

In 2009, the rate for drug violation arrests for black juveniles was twice the white rate, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Black youth are also much more likely (48 times more likely in 2001, and the numbers haven’t budged much since) than white youth to be incarcerated in an adult prison after a first-time drug arrest.

Laws such as California's are attempting to hit this issue from the policy level. But many of the ground-level factors contributing to DMC are not adequately addressed, according to experts in the field.

New York City police statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, police made 2.5 million stops. Of those, 90 percent were people of color and 90 percent did not result in legal action.

“The police are a critical part of the juvenile justice decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles,” according to criminal justice professor Alex Piquero of the University of Maryland-College Park.

Piquero, in research dating to 2008, said police act as the “gatekeepers” to juvenile courts, and if their decisions are somehow race-based, minorities will continue to be overrepresented in the corrections system.

“The first step is to really address the use of data within jurisdictions … to look at [the numbers] regularly enough to help drive the way people make decisions,” Barrows said.

For example, jurisdictions look at how many kids in juvenile detention centers are from a particular geographic area. In Chicago, the concentration is on the heavily minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Other standards include the study of race, ethnicity, gender and offense. After assessing it, the idea is to monitor the data and reform the responses and thinking practices that have contributed to systematic disparity.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created by – and is directed by – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Providing a federal grant program, it requires participant states to address DMC through a data-driven approach. This calls for states and communities to assess their DMC levels and develop mitigation initiatives.

However, many in the system, including experts, the affected minors, teachers and law enforcement, say the nearly 40-year-old law has little teeth. As a result, communities nationwide are using increasingly innovative measures to tackle DMC.

Recent models use community interveners or mentors to talk to kids directly, attempting to de-escalate a situation through an adult rather than automatically resorting to detention.

In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Jamaica and South Bronx, the New York Department of Probation is collaborating with residents, businesses and organizations in what is called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.

This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.

However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.

"Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”

Bureau editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report.

OJJDP Issues Update on Disproportionate Minority Contact

Last week, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released an updated fact sheet addressing disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

The OJJDP requires states participating in its Part B Formula Grants program to collect information about the effectiveness of programs and initiatives intended to address the overrepresentation of minority young people in state juvenile justice systems. Using a five-phase DMC reduction model, the OJJDP advises states to calculate disproportionality, assess “mechanisms” contributing to DMC and develop intervention, evaluation and monitoring programs to deter delinquency and initiate systematic improvements.

According to 2011 data, 41 states now have DMC subcommittees under State Advisory Groups, while 37 have either part-time or state-level personnel designated as DMC coordinators. Twenty-nine states have collected DMC data at nine contact points within their juvenile justice systems, while an additional 13 have collected DMC data from at least six contact points. Thirty-four states, the updated data indicates, have invested in “targeted local DMC reduction sites.”

Regarding intervention practices, 34 states have implemented systems improvement and delinquency prevention strategies, while 30 have either funded or received funding and/or technical assistance to implement DMC reduction programs patterned after nationally recognized models. In 2011, 10 states had implemented DMC reduction programs specifically targeting American Indian and Alaska Native young people.

Although 39 states have released timelines for monitoring relative rate indexes (RRI), described by the OJJDP as “the rate of activity involving minority youth divided by the rate of activity involving majority youth,” data indicates that only four states -- California, Connecticut, Kentucky and Tennessee -- “have conducted at least one evaluation of delinquency prevention and/or systems improvement strategies statewide or in their local DMC reduction site,” according to the fact sheet.

Photo courtesy of the OJJDP fact sheet.

No Quick Fix for Disproportionate School Discipline of Black Students

In the wake of a batch of federal data released earlier this year showing minority children are disproportionately disciplined in schools, experts and policy makers say the reasons are complicated and not so easy to explain. But one thing is clear, they say, changing that is going to require a major shift in school philosophy.

African-American students make up 18 percent of the pupils in a major U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights survey covering the 2009-2010 school year. But they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 46 percent of students suspended more than once, and 39 percent of students expelled.

“There’s no proven conclusive definitive explanation,” said Michael Harris, a senior attorney for juvenile justice with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Ca. But he added that he thinks the problem is for the most part what’s termed “differential response.”

“The teachers or administrators respond differently to children of different races,” Harris said. “When you can break down data on required disciplinary measures, when there’s discretion, there’s much more racial disparity.”

That is to say, students of all races are likelier to get the same punishment for the same infraction when written rules specify consequences. But when teachers or administrators can craft a response themselves, African American students are likely to suffer more, said Harris; to a lesser extent, so do Hispanic and other minority students.

But Robert Horner, a professor of Special Education at the University of Oregon, and long a researcher on student behavior, says data show a little more nuance.  “It’s not really black teacher versus white teacher,” he said, citing studies pointing more to socio-economic bias.

Yet the effect is clearly race-biased: “we as a nation are doing a lousy job of socializing African-American boys … we’re not teaching them the skills they need to be successful,” Horner said.

Slicing data by both race and gender, African-American males face the highest risk ratio. More than any other group, they are most disproportionately sent to the office, disciplined, suspended or expelled.

Harris advocates switching to a restorative justice model, which brings together the wrongdoer and the wronged to “try and resolve the underlying dispute.”

That has the virtue of ending retaliation cycles for one, he said. Teachers or administrators actually bring the actors and witnesses together to settle on some appropriate sanction, say, a letter of apology, for example.

A bill in the California Assembly aims to tackle the racial disparity in school sentencing. Senate Bill 1235 requires offending schools to implement evidence-based programs to reduce disproportionate suspensions of “ethnic or racial subgroups” of students. If it passes, it would begin with the 2013-2014 school year.

Horner supports the general idea, but thinks any law should define what kind of study exactly it means by “scientific.”

He himself is sitting on a mountain of data on the solution he studies to school disciplinary problems. Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports (PBIS) are “a framework to a whole-school” approach, he explained.

“We’re saying make schools a context where more kids will succeed behaviorally and academically,” he said. The best way to do that is to make the school environment consistent, predictable, positive and safe.

That means setting up an environment where students, teachers and parents all have the same “behavioral expectations” and bullying, skipping school—any deviations—are not rewarded with attention.

Horner said when he walks into a PBIS school, even young children are able to tell him what’s expected and give examples. Respecting the environment means bussing your lunch tray, or picking up trash, for example.

The disproportionate discipline is a nationwide trend that Gwinnett County, Ga., schools are well aware of, said system spokesman Jorge Quintana. His, the 13th-largest school system in the United States, practices PBIS.

“With feedback from students, high expectations for good behavior are set at the school,” said Quintana. “The school then promotes those expectations using incentives and rewards when students are observed making good behavior decisions.”

The county also has two separate mentoring programs that respectively recruit mentors from inside and outside the school, among other programs.

“It is the school system’s goal through our discipline policy to help students change their bad behavior, no matter their race or ethic background,” Quintana concluded.

Education Data Shows Disproportionate Minority Discipline, Opportunity Gaps For Public School Students

Department of EducationNewly collected data from the Department of Education shows that minority students are disproportionately subject to harsher disciplinary actions in public schools than their peers and offers insight into opportunity gaps for public school students around the country.

More than 70 percent of students involved in school arrests or law enforcement referrals were black or Hispanic, according to the report. Black students were three and half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers, the New York Times reported.

The Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 gathered statistics from 72,000 schools, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students from kindergarten through high school.

While the disciplinary data is probably the most dramatic, the statistics illustrated a range of racial and ethnic disparities. Finding included:


  • Black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, however, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics.
  • Over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.
  • Black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.
  • In districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

“For the first time we have an incredible new source of data that tells us where opportunity gaps are in ways we’ve never seen before as a country,” Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, said in a telephone briefing with reporters on Monday. “In recent years we have more data than ever before on identifying the achievement gap and where it exists.”

The department has gathered information on civil rights and education since 1968, yet the Bush administration suspended the project in 2006. Since then, the data collection has been reinstated and expanded to include referrals to law enforcement, The New York Times reported.

The Civil Rights Data Collection is being released in two parts. This afternoon Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, along with Aliwill will announce the results at Howard University. Afterward, data will be publicly available at

Check back for expanded coverage and updates.


Grant Helps Prevent Disproportionate Minority Contact with Juvenile Justice System

The Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers funding for the Disproportionate Minority Contact Community and Strategic Planning Project. The project helps states find ways to ensure that all kids in the Juvenile Justice System are treated fairly. This grant offers as much as $50,000 for a one-year period. The deadline for this project is June 27, 2011 at 11:59 P.M.


Jamal Hutchinson is Holding to Holder’s Words

Last June, I had the privilege of being elected to the board of directors of a non-profit in Nashville known as All The King’s Men

The mission of AKM is pretty straightforward: We strive to reduce the disproportionate minority contact and confinement amongst the young male population across the United States with the Juvenile Court System.

Over the past 10 years, I have been blessed with opportunities to serve as a youth advocate, youth program specialist and as an educator to at-risk youth socially and academically.

These have been rewarding experiences. But I have also seen some disturbing issues over the past decade, including the number of young lives adversely impacted by the juvenile courts, failing schools and failing neighborhoods, as well as the lack of financial support for programs to serve the youth.

Our CEO of AKM, Eric Capehart, reported to the Board of Directors that in Davidson County and Nashville, African American children account for only 38 percent of the total population of children under 18, but African American males make up the highest percentage of children referred to juvenile court in Nashville-Davidson County.

These statistics continue to increase with no end in sight. However, a recent speech by Attorney General Eric Holder provides hope and support for youth advocates and our youth who are involved with the juvenile system.

Attorney General Holder doesn’t hide behind those racially-charged questions dealing with the juvenile justice system. The statistics show that African Americans are still at the bottom of the totem pole in the juvenile justice system and programs like “Scared Straight” are not effective.

As youth advocators, we must take a more scientific approach to programs that aim to reduce the disproportionate minority contact and confinement of our youth. As the attorney general said, “We also must adopt a comprehensive plan of action -- one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.”

Essentially, collaboration and coalition building must be part of the new paradigm shift for program development. In Nashville-Davidson County, a task force has been established to investigate the disproportionate minority contact and confinement, a great step for our community.

Our next step in Nashville has to be to collaborate and to build a coalition with the education system, which includes the higher learning universities and the public education system.

As Attorney General Holder said “…it’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice.”

We must invest in effective programs. We must take a holistic approach to saving our youth. We must support nonprofits like All The Kings Men, Inc., that has shown that after 12 months of mentoring, participants are not reentering or having contact with the juvenile justice system. We must build strong coalitions and find ways to collaborate across various sectors.

As an old Whitney Houston song goes, “I believe the children are our future, but we as advocates and the like must protect their future.”

Jamal Hutchinson, Ed. S., & M.P.A.

Accomplished Educator & Youth Specialist