Letter: Juvenile justice disparities run deep

There has been much debate this legislative session over Senate Bill 449, which would expand the number of kids transferred to the adult criminal legal system. Throughout the Senate hearings, the ACLU of Indiana, community members and youth justice professionals have raised concerns about the racial disparities that occur within the system. Specifically, transferring children to adult court disproportionately impacts children of color.

In Indiana, 69% of all cases filed directly in 2017-2018 to adult court involve black children. On the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Young, who co-authored S.B. 449, spoke to these disparities saying, “I think it’s a problem of kids committing crimes that probably don’t have parents in the households that gives them the right instruction.”

Even more concerning than the bill itself, are statements like Sen. Young’s that aim to blame communities of color for the disparities they are facing. The reality is, decades of policies throughout the criminal legal system, as well as implicit racial biases, have led to these disparities.

According to Indiana Youth Justice, implicit biases may lead police, judges, prosecutors and others in power to view white children as more “innocent” than their black peers. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection found that the surge in police officers in schools contributes to a biased application of discipline and over-criminalization of students of color.

While most states have made progress in reducing overall youth incarceration rates in the last two decades, the disproportionate confinement of young people of color in most states has actually increased. And contrary to Young’s remarks, this is not a result of black youth not having the “right instruction” in their homes. We hope in the future, legislators will be sure to do their research on how bills like S.B. 449 will impact Indiana’s youth, especially children of color.

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Katie Blair

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