Yes, Youth Incarceration is a Health Equity Issue

August 7, 2013

Today’s post was written by Brianna Moody, communications & policy intern at the Connecticut Health FoundatAbby headshot 2013ion.

“Some kids get arrested because of who they are, not because of what they do.” –Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance website

It’s called “disproportionate minority contact (DMC)” and it happens all the time in the juvenile justice system. Children of color are more likely to be arrested and are treated more harshly in the juvenile justice system than their white peers. Connecticut’s juvenile justice system is one of the worst in racial disparity according to the federal government and Human Rights Watch.

What many do not recognize is that youth incarceration is indeed a health equity issue. Achieving optimal health means addressing all aspects of health and we see that many kids in the juvenile justice system end up there because of unmet and/or unidentified mental health issues.

The mission of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA) is to reduce the number of children and youth entering the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and advocate a safe, effective and fair system for those involved.

I interviewed Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA), in order to get straight answers to some tough questions regarding children of color in the juvenile justice system.

Brianna: Why is youth incarceration a health/mental health issue?

Abby: When young people are incarcerated, they are not experiencing a “normal” developmental environment.  While the facilities here in Connecticut are, for the most part, very well run and provide good physical health care, the child is still experiencing jail or prison with all of the psychological and social side effects of being a “delinquent.”  It’s not the type of environment that provides children with the resources they need to be productive citizens in their families and communities. That becomes a public health issue. Incarceration leads to poor outcomes (in terms of education, employment, mental health and family success) and these outcomes have a domino effect on the generations that follow.  It’s not just individual futures that are jeopardized. Here and nationally we see concentrations of youth in the system from specific zip codes. Communities begin to experience a vicious cycle:  Lack of post-incarceration opportunities leads to worse outcomes, leads to more crime, leads to fewer opportunities and poorer outcomes.

Brianna: What is meant by the quote, “Some kids get arrested because of who they are, not because of what they do?”

Abby: Actually, kids get arrested because of who the adults around them are. Going back to the vicious cycle of poor outcomes, kids get arrested as a result of that cycle. During the 2010-2011 academic year in CT schools, black children were nearly four times more likely to be arrested as white children. Hispanic children were three times as likely to be arrested as white children. Children in the state’s lowest income districts were more than nine times as likely to be arrested as those from the wealthiest districts.

The problem is that these statistics aren’t the result of purposeful racially motivated decisions. They are often caused by prejudices that people don’t even realize they hold. They depend a lot on how adults respond to a child’s behavior. The same exact behavior from two different types of students leads to different outcomes. That is the problem.

Brianna: Debunking myths. Why are minority kids overrepresented in the juvenile justice system? What do most people think? What is the truth?

Abby: Most people think that children of color behave worse. We have found that in CT that is not the case at all. In national surveys, including one by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids of all races and ethnicities self-report committing the same crimes at very similar rates.

Many people also believe that there are more kids of color in the juvenile justice system as a result of poverty. We also have data from Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee to show that is not the case. While poverty is a disadvantage, it does not entirely account for the difference in how kids are treated. A rich minority youth is still more likely to be treated more harshly than a rich white youth.

Also, many people believe that there are more kids of color in the system because there is simply more crime in cities, where many of them live. Actually, there is a greater disparity in the treatment of minority youth in rural and suburban CT than in the state’s cities.

The reality is that, systemically, we sometimes make decisions about how we treat children based on their race or ethnicity—that is why minority kids are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

Brianna: CT Health is really committed to systems change. What systems changes must occur to combat this issue? What is the CTJJA doing to promote systems change on this issue?

Abby: Data-driven decision-making is key. Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC) has maintained a Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) committee since 1992 that involves leaders in reviewing DMC data, making recommendations, and helping to advocate and implement changes in policy and practice aimed at reducing DMC problems.  It relies on in-depth studies analyzing racial disparities (referenced above) and constantly asks the question, “Is this really working?”

We play both an inside and outside role. We attend community meetings and gather information. If issues are consistent among several communities then we recognize it as being a state-wide problem that we need to address.

Abby closed with the reminder that we must keep kids out of the juvenile justice system who do not need to be there. What other actions can we take to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system?

4 Responses to Yes, Youth Incarceration is a Health Equity Issue

  1. Lina Paredes says:

    Brianna and Abby – you capture the essence of the issues of the over-representation of our youth of color in the juvenile justice system very clearly. Special thanks to CTJJA for the effective work you all do to advocate for our youth. They deserve more.

  2. Brianna Moody says:

    Lina, thank you. You’re right, they do deserve more. I want to thank Abby and CTJJA as well. I think there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to this issue and it’s great to have organization such as CTJJA out there advocating for these children and recognizing youth incarceration as being a very serious health equity issue.

  3. Suzanne Michael says:

    These juvenille systems were created for one reason only. To get kids of color into the system at a younger age. They just can’t lock them up fast enough. Jim Crowe is alive and well in America, they don’t even try to hide it anymore. White kids committ as many infractions as kids of color but most white kids don’t end up in the system.Putting these kids in lock up at a young age just makes them into a criminal faster because they know the real reason why they were targeted. I can’t imagine how hopeless these kids feel when they think of their future and know the whole criminal justice is against them. What a sad state our country has turned into when we do this to young children just because they were born black or brown!

  4. Brianna Moody says:

    Suzanne, I agree. You express the vicious cycle of outcomes described in our blog post. The same behavior from children of different races can lead to very different outcomes and that is not acceptable. Our youth deserve better and as Lina mentioned, it’s great to have the CTJJA advocating for these children.

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