Where you live matters

Zip codes are key factor in assessing risk

THE PANDEMIC HAS UNMASKED the reality of the separate and palpably unequal worlds we inhabit and implicates critical issues of race and class. Given our history, this “reveal” should not have been so revelatory. We have learned that African-Americans comprise almost 70 percent of the Covid-19 deaths in New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles; 71 percent of the deaths in Milwaukee; 59 percent in Washington, DC; and 54 percent in Houston.

The Massachusetts-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice emphasizes that while the virus doesn’t discriminate, your zip code is a key factor in assessing risk. Their research shows that young people of color and their families have been disproportionately affected in Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, and Chelsea.  The time is past due for a national reckoning regarding historical and systemic realities that are directly related to significant societal inequities. The current vulnerabilities faced by communities of color reflect our past failures in treating youth and their families with equity. As Bryan Stevenson would say, we have to acknowledge the roots of the problem before we can solve it.

As is the case across the country, families lacking access to basic health care living in poorer communities are at greater risk to become medically compromised given higher rates of respiratory problems and other underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.  The picture is exacerbated by the fact that poorer families cannot afford to shelter at home, or travel to isolated enclaves or second homes. Many people in these communities have no choice but to use public transit to get to work and perform the public service jobs the rest of rely on or take for granted. While public schools are closed and teaching is conducted online, many families lack internet service or access to a computer. The terribly sad refrain that when whites catch a cold the black community catches pneumonia is no laughing matter. Where you live matters.

The chasm between the haves and have nots was explored in “Tale of Two Neighborhoods,” a June  2016 Chronicle television report highlighting a Boston University public health study which shockingly revealed that the average life span in Roxbury was 59 as contrasted with a life span of slightly below 92 for people living in the Back Bay.

While the study may have over-stated the age differential, it is difficult to deny that the life span difference between the two neighborhoods is substantial and unconscionable. When I worked as a public defender in Roxbury, I would often walk outside the district court steps on Warren Street and marvel at the majestic Boston skyline to my left. Although the courthouse was only several miles away from the city, it was like I was viewing a different universe.

I worked in juvenile and criminal justice systems as a public defender for 20 years and as a juvenile court judge for almost 24.  One of the constants I have witnessed is our nation’s seemingly intractable problem with racial and ethnic disparity. In April 2018, juvenile justice reforms were enacted which significantly expanded opportunities for diversion, decriminalized offenses such as disturbing a school assembly, and allowed for the dismissal of first offenses carrying penalties of six months or less.

A November 2019 report from the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board assessing the legislation’s impact notes that arrests fell by 43 percent in the last fiscal year. While the law is having the intended effect of reducing utilization of the juvenile justice system, the decrease is part of a decade-long trend of declining arraignments.

This ostensibly promising landscape is disturbed by the fact that here and across the country racial and ethnic disparities persist and have been increasing at all points of systemic contact. The Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board report states that “youth of color are still disproportionately represented at every level of the juvenile justice system….”

We see similar rates of disparity in the child welfare system. Between 2010-2012, 72 percent of youth in the Department of Youth Services had been involved with the Department of Children and Families. Of that number over half were involved before the age of five.

Massachusetts and other states have been aggressive proponents of utilizing interventions to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. One approach features collaborative dialogues between educators, school police, prosecutors, defenders, court professionals, and judges. Unconscious bias trainings are part of the agenda.

These efforts are important but the discourse should not be limited to change at the margins. Acknowledging the realities of structural and systemic racism that are the primary causes of explicit and unconscious bias and supporting children and families in their communities before court involvement is paramount. Embracing a more robust and equitable public health model is a national imperative as is re-visiting the policies and practices which have fueled geographical segregation and the great divide between the haves and have nots.

Contextual analysis is required. This entails consideration of the larger systems and frames that adversely affect children and families of color and the factors that have contributed to what Marian Wright-Edelman and others have characterized as the cradle-to-prison pipeline.  In Justice for America’s Children, she observed that the “pipeline runs through economically depressed neighborhoods and failing schools, across vacant lots where playgrounds and health facilities should be, and in and out of broken, understaffed child welfare agencies.”

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein argues that geographical segregation is the result of race conscious de jure action, which has included school siting, housing, urban renewal, and zoning policies that have had devastating impacts on black families. Today the typical black family has only 10 cents for every dollar held by the typical white family. “While there is no magic bullet for racism, access to wealth and the security to pass it down from one generation to the next would go a long way toward changing the trajectory for black families.”

Access to public education is an access to justice issue. Today most students of color in places like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston attend highly segregated school systems.  The promise of integrated schools was supposed to equalize access to resources. During the 2016-2017 school year, the Brockton school system was only able to spend $1.28 per student on classroom supplies, while the more affluent Weston system allotted $275 per student.

Disparities in access to the internet in poorer neighborhoods have been widely reported since schools have closed. Some students in Boston and other parts of the country have had to rely on public television for their classes.  And urban school systems of color, which have never had a Columbine-type of incident, nevertheless have been the most heavily policed. In 2000, approximately 3 million students were suspended or expelled and over 97,000 were arrested. Over 67 percent were youth of color. These rates have been relatively constant ever since.

The COVID-19 epidemic has graphically illustrated our separate worlds and provides an opportunity to re-think our national health care system and embrace a much more proactive public health agenda. This requires supporting children and families in their communities.

Research demonstrates that supporting the socially connective tissue of family and neighborhood is necessary for positive youth development and reduced recidivism. The Columbia Justice Lab has documented dramatic decreases in juvenile recidivism in New York City occasioned by the closing of upstate New York juvenile prisons in favor of community-based treatment. It costs as little as $6 a day to supervise a youth in the community. Adopting a more community-based public health orientation is good for youth and good for public safety.

Meet the Author

Jay Blitzman

First Justice, Massachusetts Juvenile Court
The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity. If policy decisions have fueled the geographical divide and the cradle-to-prison pipeline, why can’t they be changed? Let’s take a hard look at the consequences of practices, intended or otherwise. This means acknowledging our history and reconsidering decisions that have limited social mobility and access to affordable housing and quality public education. We must search for vaccines to cure the pandemic as well as our persistent structures of inequality. Where you live shouldn’t matter.

Jay Blitzman is a retired juvenile court judge.