Decriminalizing Childhood for Youth of Color: A Policy Framework

help kids don't jail them

The Burns Institute recently collaborated with the Urban America Forward: Civil Rights Roundtable Series to produce a thought piece on a new, transformative youth justice policy framework that would challenge the structural racial injustices that contribute to and perpetuate disparities in youth justice.

We joined a diverse group of civil rights leaders, scholars, activists, practitioners, representatives of philanthropy, and representatives of the private sector to share evidence-based and practice-proven policies that are working to dismantle inequality in urban America today.

You can download a copy of the BI’s policy framework towards the transformation of youth justice here.

In just a few clicks, the BI gives you the ability to see the racial and ethnic disparities in your local youth justice system.


We’ve kicked off 2016 with the sobering reality that our youth justice system continues to lock up tens of thousands of youth a year; the overwhelming majority of whom are youth of color. As public outcry continues to mount against the disparate treatment of people of color by justice systems, The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) is hopeful that more stakeholders will commit themselves to policy and practice changes that work to promote greater racial equity in the administration of youth justice.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) recently released 2013 data on youth incarceration and confinement. While most states have reduced their numbers of confinement, the disparate rate at which youth of color are involved in the youth system remains inexcusably high.

Using new data from OJJDP, the BI’s Unbalanced Juvenile Justice data map allows you to learn all about the racial and ethnic disparities occurring in your local youth justice system.

In 2014, the BI launched the data map and encouraged users to incorporate the data into their own work. With the latest 2013 data, it is time again to see how each state is progressing in its fight for racial and ethnic fairness. By using BI’s data map, one is able to have a more critical approach by analyzing raw numbers and rates as by offense category, race and ethnicity. This interactive ability provides a nuanced understanding of changes in the justice system.

As noted in OJJDP’s 2013 highlights, the number of incarcerated youth continued to decline in most states in 2013. In the United States, incarceration numbers dropped 12.9 percent for all youth between 2011 and 2013.

Yet, despite overall reductions in incarceration rates, White youth experienced the most significant decline. This means that White youth are now even less likely to be incarcerated than youth of color than before.

While there are jurisdictions actively working to address racial and ethnic disparities in their local systems, the data shows there is still much work to be done in every jurisdiction:

  • Despite declining numbers for both Black and White youth in California, Black youth went from 7.5 times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated in 2011 to 8.2 times more likely in 2013.
  • In Utah, the number of White youth declined sharply, while the number of Black youth increased between 2011 and 2013. In 2011, there were 402 White youth and 45 Black youth incarcerated in Utah. In 2013, there were 246 White youth and 144 Black youth incarcerated. While there are more White youth incarcerated than Black youth, when accounting for the number of White and Black kids in Utah’s population, Black have a much higher rate of involvement than White youth.
  • In 2011, Black youth in Utah were five times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated. In 2013, this disparity jumped to 26 times more likely.
  • Nevada had a significant reduction in the disparity gaps for Black and Latino youth in 2013. However, Native American youth were incarcerated at higher rates in 2013 than they were in 2011.

The disparate treatment of youth by race and ethnicity by our justice system is unconscionable. In 2013, youth of color were more likely than White youth to be incarcerated in every single state. This was particularly true for Black youth.

As we embark upon another year of reform efforts in 2016, we hope these data will continue to serve you and those in your community.

Please make sure to sign up for regular updates from the BI to learn more about how you can end racial and ethnic disparities in your local youth justice systems.