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Racial Disparities Persist in California’s Juvenile Justice System

When Juvenile Public Defender Beth Chance’s client took a P.E. uniform from a local junior high school, he intended to give it to his neighbor who he knew couldn’t afford one.


When Juvenile Public Defender Beth Chance’s client took a P.E. uniform from a local junior high school, he intended to give it to his neighbor who he knew couldn’t afford one. The client, an undocumented 16-year-old, had no idea that within months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would begin the process of his “removal,” or deportation. 

These removal proceedings would happen after a rapid series of events. First, the student was pulled over and charged with commercial burglary and possession of stolen property. He was then interrogated by ICE at a juvenile detention center, where he was incorrectly told by the ICE officer that he did not have the right to remain silent. Though he had no strong gang affiliations, he was alleged to be a gang member and that made it difficult to defend his deportation. 

If not for Chance’s legal aid, this teenage boy would have been deported and permanently barred from re-entering the US.

In 2017, grassroots advocacy helped pass state laws like SB 54, which protects noncitizens in the juvenile justice system. But before then, ICE was allowed into juvenile halls to interrogate and detain undocumented children, just as they did with Chance’s client. However, the passage of SB 54 prevented local and state law enforcement from aiding federal ICE officers, making California a sanctuary state.

Chance’s undocumented teenage client experienced firsthand how the intricate laws within the juvenile justice system can tear at the fabric of a person’s life. Alex Busansky, cofounder of the nonprofit Impact Justice, said, “Having to go through the system [is] a traumatic experience … [where they’re] perhaps being locked up overnight, or for weeks, or for months, or for some period of time. You’re cut off from any kind of emotional support and contact.” 

Like every other state, California has its own constantly changing set of laws that make up the juvenile justice system. We often hear the term, but we don’t all know what it means or how closely it intertwines with our lives. “In California, the overarching goal of the juvenile system is supposed to be to rehabilitate the minor. The purpose isn’t so much for punishment,” Chance said. 

However, the system hasn’t always been so rehabilitation oriented. In 2000, with the passing of Proposition 21, the California juvenile court system went tough on crime. The proposition expanded the number of penalties for crimes committed by youth, reflecting the public’s fear of young people of color. 

At the time, many voters believed that youth offenders of color were growing more and more violent. In reality, youth crime was at its lowest level in decades. “As time went on … there was a trend in juvenile law to start focusing more on punishment than rehabilitation,” said Chance. 

One example of this is gang enhancement statutes, where a prosecutor can intensify a minor’s charge if there is proof of gang affiliation. “From my point of view, they overused that statute and used it in a way that was inequitable and racist. If you lived in a poor community and you were Latino, you were much more likely to get a gang enhancement,” said Chance.

Since then, reforms have been introduced to dial back laws that promote punishment over rehabilitation. One such change was Proposition 57, which passed in 2016. According to Robbi Cook, a Bay Area criminal defense lawyer, “Juveniles cannot be charged in adult court, unless a juvenile court judge decides otherwise.” 

As of January 1, 2021, AB 901 made it so that children who habitually refuse to obey school authorities can no longer be subject to the juvenile court just for that reason. 

The growing understanding of the teenage brain is one of the main motivations for these reforms. In a developing teenage brain, the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for decision making and self control — is the last to fully mature. Cook said, “Parts of the brain just haven’t developed yet, and more and more of the law is recognizing that.” 

Despite these new laws, Black and brown teens continue to be incarcerated at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of youth committed to juvenile facilities dropped by 54 percent nationwide. However, the gap between Black and white minors in juvenile hall increased. 

In 2001, African American youth were four times as likely as white youth to be committed; by 2015, that ratio had grown to be five to one. The same is true nationwide for Hispanic minors, who were 61 percent more likely than white youth to be in juvenile detention in 2013.

Criminal defense lawyers have differing opinions on how Alameda County addresses racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. O’Neil Dennis, a local criminal defence lawyer, said that law enforcement is more predisposed to target Black and brown youth. However, once they are in the juvenile court system, he said, “Judges make a concerted effort [to treat all minors the same].” Dennis continued, “Generally, the court is very forgiving, simply trying to educate the child involved … In my experience, the juvenile probation officers [have been understanding].”

Cook, however, has seen how implicit biases have affected the way some judges determine the outcome of a case. “Implicit bias is really hard to deal with. You just have to argue your case and make the judge see your client [as an individual],” she said. 

In a recent juvenile case, her client was charged with the attempted murder of a police officer. This was despite the fact that “everybody on both sides agreed that the kids did not know they were police officers.” 

Cook noticed that the prosecutor was influenced by the police department to intensify the charges. She said, “The way the entire case was handled was different, because [of] the power that police departments have with [the district attorney’s] office.” 

Interacting with law enforcement can be tricky, especially with the power they hold in various institutions. For minors, much of their police interaction comes from within schools. 

Here at Berkeley High School (BHS), students have likely seen the twelve safety officers employed by the school, along with Geoffrey Mitchell, the school resource officer (SRO). Nationwide, SROs have been a topic of heated debate. Recently, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) eliminated its police department. But BHS restorative justice coordinator Stacy Shoals advocated for the SRO. “When they are done right, and they have the right perspective, school resource officers are absolutely necessary on a school campus,” said Shoals. 

Even in the public education system, racial disparities are rampant when it comes to disciplinary action. Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African American. 

Of detained youth, 80 percent have a diagnosed mental illness or learning disability, and over 50 percent were expelled or suspended in the past. Just one out-of-school suspension in the 9th grade doubles a student’s risk of dropping out before graduation. Chance said, “There has to be a better way than bringing them into the criminal justice system. That intersection between schools and law enforcement is an unhealthy one.” 

According to Chance, involving the criminal justice system in a student’s on-campus offense “ripples out and affects the whole family.” Parents must skip work to attend court date after court date, often for months on end. They must drive to meetings with probation officers and to community service sessions. “[Probation] creates stigma in schools too, because teachers are gonna know … and that can affect how teachers might look at the kid and what they do,” said Chance. 

Looking back on California’s history of propositions and bills on juvenile justice, it’s clear that changing conceptions of race and crime are closely linked to the law. A solution is needed between schools and the justice system to guarantee that students are not unfairly targeted due to their race or background. 

Can substantial change happen within these two institutions to ensure this? Busansky said, “I’m an optimist. And yet, I know that change is really hard. Many times people will continue to engage in the same harmful practice, even if the alternative is known to be a better one.”