To address juvenile injustice, data needed

There is no racial justice without accountability

IN THE WAKE of the nationwide uprisings asserting that Black Lives Matter, there have been many eloquent pronouncements denouncing racism and pledging to do more to address its impact. The seven justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a strongly worded statement committing to “root out any conscious and unconscious bias in our courtrooms.”  Yet our judicial system purposely hides the effects of its own racism, particularly in regard to youth. A bill before the Legislature now would shine a much needed light onto the role of race in our juvenile system.

In 2016, the SJC commissioned a study to reveal the extent that racial disparities in sentencing are the result of bias in the justice system rather than simply a reflection of differences in offending driven by underling racial inequities in our society.  However, the SJC did not include an analysis of the Juvenile Court, where sentencing disparities by race and ethnicity are also strikingly large.

Massachusetts has one of the worst racial disparities for youth incarceration in the country despite more than a decade of reforms to reduce the pretrial detention of youth.

Powerful opposition to transparency has come from the Juvenile Court, whose leadership stonewalled efforts to make the state’s child-serving agencies publicly accountable. Since 2013, when the Juvenile Court started using the MassCourts electronic records system, basic data on youth has been hidden behind the court’s exemption from public records law.

Despite millions of dollars spent on this system, the courts have claimed that the most basic data requires “complex” analysis necessitating additional funding and staffing. They’ve proposed no plan to address those claimed barriers despite clear indications that such reporting is possible with the current technological infrastructure.  The court’s annual reports contain no disaggregated data that could reveal how black and Latinx youth are treated.

In the past two legislative sessions, the courts have also lobbied privately against data transparency. These efforts effectively stripped juvenile justice data reporting requirements from the 2018 criminal justice law.  Later this year, the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board, a body created by the 2018 law, will release the first compilation of juvenile justice system data, but the dashboards will exclude data on decisions by prosecutors and judges.

A statistical analysis by Probation, the Division of Youth Services, and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative,  found in a detention utilization study that some counties are up to 2.5 times more likely to incarcerate black youth than white youth for identical offenses.  Within a month of these initial findings, the Juvenile Court rescinded a 2017 three-agency data sharing agreement and essentially prohibited Probation from sharing and evaluating its own data. This prevented addressing disparities impacting black youth and blocked research on disparities impacting Latinx youth.

One year later, the Juvenile Court issued a limited approval to use court data to continue this study, but this agreement was made with the Juvenile Court controlling the content and messaging if the court disagrees with “the opinions of the DYS” about the data. To date, this study has not been released.

There is no racial justice without accountability, and there is no accountability in the courts without data.  The Juvenile Court must be a partner in the work to dismantle the structures of injustice, starting with publicly sharing currently available information to document how young people move through Massachusetts’ court decision points (see Connecticut’s example of basic data) by race and ethnicity.

The Trial Court is seeking its own IT bond bill, with a request to redesign MassCourts, but the court must commit to adequate collection and reporting of race and ethnicity data at major decision points as a minimum requirement of any redesign.

Meet the Author

Leon Smith

Executive director, Citizens for Juvenile Justice
Meet the Author

Sana Fadel

Deputy directior, Citizens for Juvenile Justice
For 16 years, Citizens for Juvenile Justice has advocated for transparency in our legal system’s response to children and youth at major decision points.  We ask that the Legislature require transparency in our juvenile system, as it does of the adult criminal legal system.  We also ask that state agencies partnering on race equity hold each other accountable rather than acquiesce to “not embarrass our partner agencies.” Silencing difficult conversations leads to unchecked bias. The courts must be leaders in this process, as institutional racism will not end by making its impact invisible. A true commitment to uprooting systemic racism requires demanding data, not dodging it.

Those who have fought for racial justice and equity have long heard eloquent and sympathetic words and promises. The time for action is now, through both legislation and a change in culture. Otherwise, those words will ring hollow and the Commonwealth will continue its history of color blind “justice” – which isn’t just for all.

Leon Smith is the executive director and Sana Fade, is the deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, the only independent, non-profit, statewide organization working exclusively to improve the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts.