Monday, June 16, 2008

Report Finds Racial Disparities in the Severity of Punishment

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008; Page B02

The nation's juvenile justice system metes out harsher punishment to black and Latino youths, locks up thousands of children for relatively minor offenses and ultimately makes them more dangerous, according to a national study released yesterday.

"We are generating more violence and criminality in our effort to interrupt it," said Douglas W. Nelson, president and chief executive of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which conducted the study, during a news conference yesterday. "We routinely fail to recognize that children are different than adults. We need to alter the context in which we serve kids."

Nelson's remarks came with the release of the foundation's annual Kids Count report, which measures the well-being of America's children in 10 categories. The report shows reductions in the rates of child deaths, teenage births, high school dropouts and teens who are not in school or working. Four areas increased: low-birthweight infants, children in single-parent homes, children in poverty and children in families in which no parent works full time.

The percentage of newborns weighing less than 5.5 pounds, who are at greater risk of dying in infancy or having long-term problems, is the highest in 40 years. It was the only category in which Maryland worsened from 2000 to 2005, when the percentage of low-birthweight babies in the state rose from 8.6 to 9.1.

Nationally, infant mortality remained steady during the period.

Maryland tied New Hampshire, at 10 percent, for the lowest rate of children living in poverty. The national rate was 11 percent for white children, 36 percent for blacks and American Indians and 28 percent for Hispanics.

Virginia improved in all but three categories: low-birthweight babies, infant mortality and children in single-parent homes.

The District lost ground in half of the 10 categories: infant mortality, teen deaths, teen births, children living with no parents working full time and children in poverty.

But the primary focus of this year's report was the fate of the 400,000 youths who cycle through the juvenile justice system each year. During a two-hour news conference yesterday at the Cannon House Office Building, a panel of experts said the problem has largely been fueled by fear and racism that often lead police to take young white offenders home and minorities to jail.

In 2006, for example, three youths of color were in custody for every one white youth, the report said. Two thirds of all youths in custody were incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.

In the 1990s, 49 states made it easier to try youths as adults. On any given night, 100,000 minors are in jails, prisons, boot camps or residential facilities. A succession of speakers yesterday said these places often cause more problems than they solve. Grace Bauer of Lake Charles, La., said her son, who had been sent to a boot camp for being "ungovernable," was raped when he was 13.

Bauer said her son, now 21, carries the scars. She later learned that the program had a 95 percent failure rate. "On my first visit to see him, he had welts on his face," she said.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Virginia) said many "get tough" crime measures are "nonsense that does not reduce crime."

"It helps [politicians] get elected," he said. "If you can get it to rhyme, even better."

Vincent Schiraldi, director of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said it would be more rational to lock up only the most violent offenders and use less restrictive options for the others, particularly those without long criminal records.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, now in his mid-20s, said he should not have been sent to adult jail when he was arrested at 16 for carjacking in Fairfax County. He had no previous criminal record and was an honor roll student.

But instead of being sent to a juvenile jail, he was placed with adults and served eight years in prison. He never received any mental health treatment.

After he was released, Betts attended Prince George's Community College. He now goes to the University of Maryland on a poetry scholarship.

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