Burns Institute 2018 Annual Report: The Urgency of Change

A political climate in which racism is espoused from the nation’s highest office did not temper the W. Haywood Burns Institute’s (BI) work in 2018. With a galvanized internal structure, strengthened and growing partnerships and projects, and a new vision of structural well-being, BI continues to work to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities by growing a community-centered, equitable, and restorative justice model. Now more than ever, our work is necessary, impactful, and urgent.

Redefining Our Safety

As we approach almost 20 years of advocacy for a fair and equitable administration of justice, we have many challenges and opportunities before us. We live in a period of mass incarceration fueled by factors which – at first blush – seem too powerful to overcome. Using incarceration as a primary instrument of social control is backward- looking and fails to meet societal demands in a more connected, competitive and greener world. Crime and punishment in our country has resisted modern notions of dignity and humanity in the treatment of law violators. But change is coming from historically-silenced voices that are growing in number and strength. Communities of color, formerly incarcerated folks, LGTBQ communities, researchers, and policy advocates are challenging the status quo and looking to new approaches to achieve community safety. The Burns Institute has been a part of this movement since its inception. We have extended our work beyond reducing the harms of justice system involvement. We are now setting a vision for transformation. We are moving toward a new north star of accountability steeped in restoration, healing, interventions and well-being for people of color. We are deconstructing structural racism and redefining safety beyond the outdated ideas of custody, control and suppression. This task is not for the faint of heart, but we will continue to move forward fiercely in our efforts to have communities thrive and prosper.

Continue reading the full 2018 Annual Report here.

Burns Statement on the Human Rights Crisis at the Border

The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) was founded on principles of human dignity and fair treatment for communities of color that are too often subject to policies and practices that are steeped in racialized institutional social control. The current immigration crisis represents this nation’s continuing tragic history of formally justifying inhumane treatment and the cruelty of “the other.” Beginning with the genocide of Native Americans and the barbaric enslavement of African people, the country has developed a playbook for how it engages communities of color. This sad predictable script begins by using false and exaggerated claims to create threats to national safety and exploit those threats to gin up fear of “savages” “rapists” “gangs” “super predators” “coolies” “anchor-babies” and “terrorists”.

When the hysteria reaches the correct pitch, an authority figure, in this case the President of the United States, normalizes unconscionable acts by saying “these aren’t people, these are animals” thereby unleashing violent racialized oppression with little regard for long term consequences.

The current iteration of this too familiar playbook is falling on asylum seekers from Mexico, Central America and Arabs that practice Islam. Mainstream and social media have well documented cruelty involving thousands of children being separated from parents, “disappeared” without due process and prevented from the basic nurturing necessary for infants and toddlers to thrive. The tsunami of racism, intolerance, dehumanizing language, family disruption and separation provide real world evidence of what racialized oppression looks like today. We need only look to our nation’s recent past to understand that this level of familial trauma will have catastrophic consequences for generations. The need for health and healing services will reveal themselves soon enough and the predictable failure to deliver them will lead to more stress and morbidity for communities of color.

The BI forcefully opposes these policies and rejects any rationale for their existence. Indeed, they are shocking and visible demonstrations of the more mainstream uses of state sanctioned family and community violence. The overuse of foster care, mass incarceration and the racial and ethnic disparities present therein must be considered part of this continuum. We must examine this current crisis in the context of all instruments of social control and the destruction and trauma that communities of color confront daily.

The BI believes we must combat the structural and institutional racism that cause the existence and implementation of these deplorable policies and practices. Regardless of political party or affiliation, we know the origins of our country’s social and legal fabric are ingrained in the targeted and inhumane treatment of communities of color.

The BI believes that the root causes of state sanctioned violence must be confronted. We support challenging the existence and mission of ICE, increasing the capacity of rapid and quality legal services, providing health and healing services and forever ending the separation of children from parents and families. The BI fully supports any individual, collective, institution, network and advocacy organization committed to fighting for justice, fairness and equity for all of humanity.

The echoes of the cries of our ancestors that were the previous recipients of similar acts of cruelty must be heard and inform our voices and actions of defiance. This country is in transition as we now have the first minority white generation and it is clear that those in power intend to use draconian policies to maintain power. Let us not forget that our future is at stake and worth the fight.

Tshaka Barrows, Chief Executive Officer
James Bell, President

Direct File Rates Arbitrarily Rising for Youth of Color

BI logo          CJCJ logo         NCYL logo


A new report examining the prosecution of youth as adults in California documents variations by county in the use of “direct file” and its disproportionate impact on youth of color.

Direct file refers to a decision, made solely at a prosecutor’s discretion, to charge a youth in adult, criminal court. The report, is released today by the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ), National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) and W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) in coordination with yesterday’s California Supreme Court ruling in a favor of a proposed ballot initiative (the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016) that would end the practice of direct file, and with tomorrow’s joint legislative hearing on the new measure.

Download Full Report

The report finds:

Prosecutors are increasingly using direct file despite plummeting youth crime: 80 percent of youth prosecuted in the adult system are placed there by a prosecutor. Despite a 55 percent drop in youth felony arrests, district attorneys report 23 percent more direct filings per capita in 2014 than in 2003. These opposing trends suggest that there is no clear relationship between serious crime and the use of direct file.

Racial and ethnic disparities have grown:  While the rate of direct file is decreasing for white youth, it has increased for Black and Latino youth. In 2003, Black youth were 4.5 times as likely as white youth to be directly filed, but by 2014 this figure rose to 11.3 times more likely.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Direct File Rates (2003-2014)
Racial & Ethnic Disparities in Direct File Rates 2003-2014

County level disparities lead to an inequitable system of “justice-by-geography”: For example, Yuba and San Diego counties report identical rates of youth arrest for serious offenses, but youth living in Yuba County are 34 times more likely to be directly filed than youth in San Diego County.

Youth who are subjected to the adult system experience psycho-emotional trauma stemming from the high-stakes criminal prosecution, and are more likely to recidivate. By eradicating direct file, Californians would reduce the high cost of unnecessary and harmful long-term incarceration of youth, particularly youth of color, while improving public safety and expanding opportunities for youth to engage in school, work, family and community.

Download Full Report

For more information about this topic or to schedule an interview with the authors, please contact:

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice at (415) 621- 5661 x 121 or cjcjmedia@cjcj.org

National Center for Youth Law at (510) 835-8098 x 3055 or fguzman@youthlaw.org

W. Haywood Burns Institute at (415) 321-4100 x 108 or lridolfi@burnsinstitute.org

New BI Report Highlights Troubling Trends in Youth of Color Incarceration

Incarceration is not the solution, it is the problem.

This week, the Burns Institute joined communities, schools, youth programs and organizations across the nation in the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth to raise awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and the importance of ending the incarceration of all youth.

We are participating in the week of action by drawing attention to disturbing trends in the incarceration of youth of color with the release of our new report, Stemming the Rising Tide: Racial & Ethnic Disparities in Youth Incarceration and Strategies for Change.

The long-term consequences of youthful misbehavior for youth of color are numerous and oftentimes, extreme. Most young people are allowed to grow out of these behaviors without getting entangled in the justice system. Yet, youth of color are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, sentenced, and incarcerated for these behaviors than are their White peers.

While the overall rate of incarceration of all youth has decreased by 55% since 1997, the rate of incarceration of youth of color continues to rise, marking an alarming pattern.

Latino youth have been between one and a half and two times as likely as White youth to be committed to out-of-home placements. Moreover, data consistently indicate that Latino youth are undercounted, making it likely that the disparity is even more significant.

Our report shows trends in the incarceration of Native American youth that are particularly troubling: the disparity gap between Native American and White youth has risen in every offense category between 1997 and 2013.

No young person should never be removed from his or her home due to a technical violation (e.g. failure to appear, inability to pay restitution). Yet, on a one-day count in 2013, nearly 5,000 youth languished in out-of-home placements as the result of a technical violation. Sixty-seven percent of youth incarcerated for a technical violation were young people of color.

These national trends should be cause for great concern for advocates, youth justice system stakeholders, and communities.

In our report, we recommend several strategies that can resolve some of the roots of racial inequities in the administration of justice and allow youth of color a chance at restorative justice and greater well being.

Download a full copy of our report here.

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.

Take a Look at our 2015 Success Highlights!

Digits of new year 2015 with small dartboard on white background

We’ve had an incredible year!

In 2015, the BI provided technical assistance, training, strategic thinking and support to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities within youth justice systems in 104 counties and 38 states across the country.

Over the past year, we’ve engaged in partnerships that have led to important victories benefiting youth of color. And we’ve grown our internal capacity to meet the needs of even more local communities that want to work towards greater equity and accountability within their justice systems.

You can check out our 2015 annual highlights to learn more about the significant impacts we’ve achieved with our partners in this year.

As the national conversation on justice continues to advance, the BI is even more committed than ever to our innovative and valuable work to make the lives of youth of color matter in our democracy in the next year and beyond.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to the BI this holiday season, please click here to donate now!

See you in 2016! 🙂

Burns Institute Annual Highlights 2015_FINAL copy

Op-Ed: The Future of Justice Administration Must Not Be a Repeat of Today


One year ago, a grand jury voted not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead 18-year old Michael Brown, in an incident that sparked a powerful movement against police brutality and the disparate treatment of Black people by the justice system. In the year that followed, the nation has borne witness to a seemingly constant onslaught of evidence that is forcing civil society, in my opinion, to confront uncomfortable yet necessary truths about society’s longstanding negative perceptions of people of color and its racially inequitable administration of justice.

President Obama’s criminal justice tour taking place this fall is providing opportunities that bring the justice conversation into the public sphere. It is a conversation that was resisted by a majority of our society for hundreds of years, as long as we perceived ourselves to be protected from people that will hurt us. Despite the good intentions of the President, much of the justice conversation continues to be defined by judgments about how communities of color are to be policed in order to deliver on the state’s mandate to protect public safety. By and large, we have failed to adequately engage the roots of unequal justice for people of color and address the lack of accountability and transparency within the system.

Clearly, every society needs a justice apparatus to administer the principles necessary to maintain democratic institutions with salience in all our lives. However, justice has never been administered in a vacuum. Long ago, our society struck a dangerous bargain with the justice system; we ignore our mistreatment of people of color in order to feel safe and free from fear of them. Let us not be naïve about how powerful that agreement is and the depth of its roots. These historical roots are embedded in our jurisprudential DNA. They inform impulses, biases, and notions of who should suffer punishment and who should be protected from harm.

The foundation of today’s justice system encompasses three centuries of social and legal norms built on the belief that people of color were at different times savages (Native Americans), feebleminded (Latinos), incapable of normal function (Asians), or not even human (Blacks). The historical narrative guiding the administration of justice today is that communities of color must be controlled in order for law, order, peace and tranquility to be achieved. Thus custody, control and suppression of people of color were seen as synonymous with public safety.

We have evolved, through movement-based struggle, to a place where laws can no longer be explicitly aimed at particular races. However, centuries of laws, policies and practices have built a justice infrastructure that is filled with race effects. Indeed, custody and control of people of color has been so inextricably linked to safety that any response to law violations that challenges the use of incarceration is viewed with suspicion, deemed unworkable, or worse yet, unimaginable. Proponents of the status quo justice apparatus deny this premise of structural racism, using seductive but ultimately hollow and supposedly race-neutral phrases like “tough on crime” and “do the crime, do the time” to support current practices as the best way to public safety.

Recently, F.B.I. Director James B. Comey stated, without any data or research to support his position, that the reason certain crimes may be rising was the so-called “Ferguson effect” in Black communities. He stated:

“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,”

 That one of the highest law enforcement officials in the land can comfortably comment on the complex factors of race, crime and justice by only having a “strong sense” with no facts in support, speaks volumes about the need for a new narrative on race and justice.

A new justice narrative must have racial equity as a guiding principle and it must also acknowledge the cumulative effects of structural racism on the administration of justice today. New frameworks should assume that the human condition will always have violations of the law, but that the best way for us to be kept safe is to change our justice system from one of revenge and punishment to one of interventions, services and proportionate monitoring of behavior.

It is time we struck a new bargain for how we administer justice and public safety. After centuries of retribution and punishment that has disproportionately affected people of color, it is time to cure the ills of humanity with greater humanity. As Americans, it is so hard for us to use humanity and safety from crime in the same sentence. However, we know that our current model needs an overhaul, as the evidence continues to mount. The mistreatment and mass incarceration of people of color by the justice system is not sustainable. The future administration of justice cannot and should not be a repetition of what we do today.

James Bell, Founding Executive Director, The W. Haywood Burns Institute