Racial Bias and Certification
The story from the Chicago Reporter found under the Racial Injustice page of this web site is merely the most recent of a long line of studies going back 30 years documenting the racial bias of the certification process.
Certifying juveniles as adults was part of an overall conservative “law and order” crackdown on juvenile crime starting during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Research began almost immediately during that time documenting the disproportionate number of African-American youth who were certified. As the studies poured in, more and more were alerted to this issue. For example, in 1997, for personal crimes, whites were 57% of cases petitioned but only 45% of cases waived to adult court, while African-American youth charged with similar offenses were 40% of cases petitioned and 50% of cases waived to adult court. In drug cases, whites were 59% of cases petitioned but only 35% of cases waived; in contrast African-American drug offenders were 39% of cases petitioned but 63% of the cases waived to adult court.
A study of waivers in Los Angeles County demonstrated extreme racial bias. While blacks accounted for only 13% of the juvenile population, they accounted for 95% of the cases waived to the adult court. When expressed as rates per 100,000, it was found that Latinos were 6 times more likely and blacks were 12 times more likely than whites to be transferred. Among those sent to adult courts in South Carolina during a 10-year period (1985–1994) 80% were blacks. Studies in Utah and Pennsylvania found that at least half of those transferred were black.
More recent studies have continued to find racial bias in certification decisions. For instance, in 2003 in California black youths were almost five times more likely to be transferred than white youth; and Hispanics were just over three times more likely. In Virginia in 2005 black youth constituted less than half of all youth arrested but almost three-fourths (73%) those sent to adult prisons.
Now we have the study in Chicago, which once again documents this bias. The Chicago study, conducted by the Chicago Reporter, found that over half (54%), of the 17-year-olds were convicted for drug deals and property theft. A total of 58% were for nonviolent offenses. Including robbery without a gun and all other nonviolent offenses the proportion is 71%. The largest number were low-level drug offenses. Blacks constituted 77% and, according to the newspaper, “most hail from just five impoverished areas, some of which are home to the highest long-term unemployment rates in the country—including Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Roseland and West Englewood. Some of these neighborhoods would be recognized by criminologists as being locations where the largest rate of poverty exists and the highest school dropout rates occur, along with a heavy concentration of gangs.
We create and sustain conditions that lead inevitably to crimes such as drug offenses and then we solve the problem by merely pulling out selected members of the community for punishment, leaving untouched the underlying conditions. Actually, all of this was said by Frederick Thrasher, among other members of the Chicago School of Sociology, in the 1920s (including the work of Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay. Ninety years later the problem persists and what have we learned?
© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.