Chicago Public Radio: Why is There a Divide in Juvenile Justice?

In Cook County, almost six thousand juveniles were held in detention in 2008. But for every white kid in detention, there were twenty-nine black kids.

And those sent off to prison from Cook County were also overwhelmingly kids of color.

The problem of racial disparity in juvenile justice has been recognized for decades, but still today there’s no consensus on how to fix it, or even why it happens.

Today, we continue our series Inside and Out. Linda Paul has this story about how race, class and resources can influence a young person’s experience with the justice system.


There are lots of people concerned about over-representation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. Here’s a lunch-time presentation last February at Loyola Law School.

HUTT: In most crime, especially for instance drug crime (which we know drives the system quite well ) through self-reporting, the rate of criminality among African American, Latino and white children is identical — a little higher in the white community.

This is Rick Hutt – with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

HUTT: But in the north shore of Chicago, a kid is growing his grass hydroponically and texting his customers. And it’s gonna cost the Wilmette police department an awful lot of money to intervene.

Meanwhile, in other places there’s less access to technology.

HUTT: The kid on the west side of Chicago, on Madison and Lawler, is on the corner yelling “blows.” And the cops are a couple blocks away. And fifty feet away. That’s an economic reality of why kids on the west side of Chicago, who are committing crimes on the same level as they are in Wilmette — are arrested.

When it comes to that first, or maybe second, encounter with the police, geographic differences can be critical. Let’s meet a young man who got in some trouble on the north shore when he was 17. This young man and I ( we’ll call him Stephen ) are talking in a suburban parking lot where he’s sitting in his car listening to his favorite kind of music, rap.




YOUNG MAN’S VOICE: I was arrested with a significant amount of marijuana. It was around like maybe a quarter of a pound, scale, baggies, and cash.



At 17, his age at the time of the crime, Stephen was still a kid. But in the eyes of the law – at least here in Illinois – when it comes to felonies, you’re considered an adult at 17.



On the night Stephen was arrested, he was driving someone else’s car.



STEPHEN: And when I went to get the insurance, there was like a glass marijuana smoking pipe. And when I opened it, the cops were actually on both sides, and they saw it. So it was like you know, “game over.” I got arrested. They took me to the station…


And there …



STEPHEN: They said, “We’re cutting you a break. We’re only going to charge you with possession.”


Stephen could have been given a heavier charge “ possession with intent to deliver,” but he was charged with ‘simple possession,’ put on pre-trial services, and ordered to do drug counseling, ‘drug drops’ and



STEPHEN: I was on a curfew, 7 to 7 curfew, which I did NOT comply with.


Not only did he break curfew, he also sometimes “tested dirty” on his drug tests. At about this time, his private attorney asked the court if Stephen could attend an out-of-state program that would provide drug counseling –and help him get his diploma. As Stephens’ parents’ found out, that type of help doesn’t come cheap.



STEPHEN: I think it cost like $40,000 a year ? Or $50,000 a year.


Today Stephen is in his mid-20’s .. He attends college, has a part-time job — and says his drug use is behind him. I ask him if his case is an aberration… cuz a lot of people perceive that white kids like him in the suburbs don’t commit much crime.



STEPHEN: That’s very…not true at all. Kids are drinking, doing drugs, fighting and doing all types of bad things in the suburbs. If anything, I think especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol, it’s so… Growing up in the suburbs it was just everywhere and everyone was doing it.


Stephen thinks that in some ways parents in the suburbs are more involved.



STEPHEN: Not to say they’re like keeping you from doing drugs or getting in trouble. It’s more that IF that happens, maybe to save their own face – or save your face – they’ll intervene at some level and keep it like ‘hush-hush.’


And it’s not only parents. The police, he says, may help out too …



STEPHEN: Not like you get away with things, but they don’t want to like screw you over completely.


And, Stephen says, in smaller communities, there can be a whole different relationship with the police.



STEPHEN: Like I know a lot of times, like they don’t charge — like, you know, they’ll just charge simple drug possession instead of sales. And they won’t add on all those, like, you know, “Oh you’re by a park, or this and that.” They’ll just like give you a simple possession. Or if like you’re over the limit, like if you’re going to the felony limit, a common practice — and I’ve seen this multiple times — that they FLUSH. Like they’ll have you like take stuff, and flush it down the toilet and be like, “Well we’re giving you a break this time, you know, so you don’t, you know, get like get a felony, or you don’t get a higher… like more in trouble.”





Randell Strickland has just heard Stephen’s story.



STRICKLAND: That’s my immediate reaction. And I’m more surprised by that than I expected to be by this story.


Strickland works with the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Models for Change’ program.



MIGUEL: And I don’t doubt what he said wasn’t 100% accurate.


And this is Miguel Millet, the state DMC coordinator for Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Commission. Strickland and Millet are both guys who spend their time trying to wipe out DMC.


This young man’s experience, they say, helps illustrate something they see all the time. That kids in different towns, and even different parts of the city, get treated differently. And it has a lot to do, they say, with the perception of “our kids”.



MILLET: There’s a much better chance in this scenario that you just outlined, that when the police went to pick up this kid, the police said, “Well you know, I know this kid, and I play poker with his dad on Thursday nights. He’s not that bad, let me go ahead and cut him a break.”



STRICKLAND: If I’m a police officer in say Niles, and I arrest a kid in Niles, I live in Niles, maybe I went to high school in Niles, but this is MY community. So this kid, in that context, could be perceived by that officer as one of our kids. If I work in the City of Chicago? And I work in the 10th District in Lawndale, but I’m from Beverly or from Chatham on the southeast side, or from Rogers Park — it would be easier for me to see why an arresting officer might not see the kid that he’s arresting in the 10th District in Lawndale as one of OUR kids.


As they help put Stephen’s story into perspective, Strickland says they’re really fighting for balanced treatment.



STRICKLAND: So the work that we do really is trying to speak to that. Trying to use data to say- Ya know what? If we look at the way that we use discretion, we will see – we could see — where there are trends toward disparate and harsher treatment for youth of color versus white youth. And we’re not saying that we want white youth to be treated more harshly — or to not be stepped down, or not be given breaks. We’re just saying, we want the same level of discretion fairly applied to black and Latino kids as well.



But it’s more than discretionary decisions. Laws can also bias against city kids. Millet brings up provisions that bump up drug charges for those caught around public spaces, including schools, houses of worship and public housing.



MILLET: I know in my neighborhood where I live in which is predominantly African-American, I don’t think it’s physically possible to be outside of 1,000-feet from a school or a church. I don’t think that is physically possible anywhere in my neighborhood. You give that fact that once you are within 1,000-feet of a school or a church the sentencing for the drug charge automatically increases — I think that’s a prime example there of how the discrepancies exist. You can just be in the wrong neighborhood. You could be the same kid and be in the wrong neighborhood



Here’s one thing both men know is badly needed. Numbers. Consistent collection of data. At all those decision points along the juvenile justice continuum where people in power can make decisions that are often discretionary.



STRICKLAND: And ultimately if we are going to have a system that is fundamentally fair, we need to know who is being fed into the system. We need to know how they’re being fed into the system. From where? By whom? Under what circumstances and to what outcome? And in Illinois, across the state, from town to town, county to county, region to region — we can’t do that.



For more than twenty years, the feds have required the collection of data about disproportionate minority contact, on the theory that you can’t begin to address the problem until you’ve accurately defined it.


But to this day, the reporting is inconsistent and erratic, and in our state, there’s little enforcement.



The Burns Institute, which is nationally recognized for its work with these issues, warns that there as been an ‘adoration of the question’ — the creation of a multi-million dollar cottage industry, whose quote: “primary activity is to RE-STATE the problem of disparities, in essence, endlessly adoring the question of what to do about DMC. But never reaching an answer.”

by Linda Paul, Chicago Public Radio | April 20th, 2010