A new report out of Massachusetts reveals the obvious: Black and Latino teens are more likely to be arrested than white teens, and their higher arrest rate is filling the state’s juvenile justice system with a lopsided racial makeup.
The report, arising from a 2018 Massachusetts criminal justice reform bill, shows that Black teens are four times more likely to be physically arrested than white teens, and that Latino teens are three times more likely to be arrested. This apparently remains the case even in Massachusetts, where 12 to 17-year-old white youth comprise 64% of the teen population. Additionally, the arrest rate remains disproportionate, despite a 50% drop in youth entering the juvenile justice system in that state.
The information reveals a big problem at the front end of the state’s juvenile justice system, said Maria Mossaides, Chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board, which authorized the report.
“We know the harmful effects that any justice system involvement can have on kids, which is why best practice, as well as state law, recommends issuing court summons instead of placing a child in handcuffs or a locked facility whenever possible,” Mossaides said. “We hope the recommendations in this report provide guidance to the state and police departments on some initial steps to take to work toward an equitable juvenile justice system.”
The report points out that disparities arise from biases at the very beginning of the process, even before the complaint against the young person is filed. In misdemeanor cases, police generally have a choice in whether they physically arrest a youth over an alleged delinquent offense, or merely issue a court summons. In Fiscal Year 2021, Black and Latino youth comprised 645 and 780 custodial arrests, respectively, while white youth accounted for 994 arrests. This seems like a low number until you consider Black and Latino youth make up a paltry 10% and 18% of the state’s teen population, respectively.
National data suggests behavioral differences between white and minority youth is not likely a factor influencing arrests. In fact, Black and Latino youth are about as likely as white youth to get into fights or use drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the CDC discovered Black young people had a lower reported incidence of carrying weapons, and they used considerably less alcohol than white teens.
Despite these telling numbers, the JJPAD board reported law enforcement officers arresting Black and Latino youth 28% and 32% of the time, respectively, compared to white youth who were arrested 18% of the time. This trend for higher arrests among Black and Latino youth remained true for all state counties, whether they contained sparse or high minority populations.
“These early disparities matter,” the report states. “Although Massachusetts has significantly increased efforts in recent years to divert more and more youth who enter the juvenile court system from progressing further within that system, the initial contact with police and with the court system can still have harmful effects, which can last throughout their adolescence and into adulthood.”
Other reports make clear putting teens in handcuffs early in life easily leads to more complications during some very pivotal developmental years. Arresting a teen can open the door to increased incidence of dropping out of high school, putting off or not going to college, and limited employment opportunities. These problems, in turn, pave the way for still more challenges including housing insecurity, food insecurity, drug or alcohol abuse, depression and a host of difficulties that smooth the path to additional arrests in their adult years.