When 99% of Children Arrested Are Black: A Case for Police Diversion

A child is stopped by the police for a minor infraction, such as petty vandalism.  National statistics show that, if the child is African-American, he will likely see the inside of a squad car, a jail cell, and a courtroom.  If the child is white, he will likely be sent home with a warning.  In fact, nationally, Black youth are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be arrested for the same crime.

In New Orleans, the situation is even worse. A 2011 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found that 98.6% of all children arrested by the New Orleans Police Department for “serious offenses” were African-American, while only 1.4% – 8 arrestees – were white.  The report concluded: “The level of disparity for youth in New Orleans is so severe and so divergent from nationally reported data that it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes, and unquestionably warrants a searching review and a meaningful response from the Department.”

The DOJ investigation led to a federal civil rights lawsuit, which was settled in 2013 with a “Consent Decree” – an agreement between New Orleans and the federal government, supervised by U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan, that was designed to end discriminatory policing practices, such as illegal stops and searches of youth.

Incredibly, since then, the problem has gotten worse.  In the first five months of 2015, more than 99% of children arrested in New Orleans for any offense were African-American.  LCCR’s research suggests that this level of racial disproportionality is virtually unprecedented in any large American city.

The solution, plainly, isn’t to arrest more white children – it’s to ensure that African-American youth are given the same second chances, and offered the same diversionary alternatives, as their white peers.

Rachel Gassert, LCCR’s Policy Director, explains: “We need NOPD policies that dictate the use of alternatives to custodial arrest and formal processing for low-level offenders.  Those policies should dictate that police treat all similarly-situated children the same, regardless of race.”

In late 2014, Gassert worked with the City of New Orleans to pursue technical assistance from the National League of Cities in order to develop a set of best-practice enforcement policies for juvenile cases.

Under one version of such a policy, a child who is stopped by the police would not necessarily be arrested and transported to detention.  Based on history and suspected offense severity, the child could instead be released to a parent – or remain in school, on an allegation of a school-based offense – with a warning or a citation.  Children who are ineligible to be released on the scene might be taken to a resource center rather than be exposed to the trauma of going to jail.

Policies mandating alternatives to formal arrest would eliminate the need for police officers to waste time transporting youth who do not represent a public safety risk and thus do not need to be detained.  Keeping officers on the street is significant in a city that seeks to hire more police officers in order to counteract what its elected officials believe to be a significant shortfall on the force.

And alternatives to formal arrest would improve life-outcomes for vulnerable youth.  Research shows that when youth become involved in the justice system for minor behavior problems, they are more likely to engage in delinquent acts in the future.

Gassert points to other jurisdictions that have found ways to reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system while reducing costs and contributing to better life outcomes for vulnerable youth:

  • In Minnesota, specified offenses are classified as “petty misdemeanors,” which do not constitute a crime, and can only be punishable by a fine of no more than $300. The Minneapolis Police Department allows officers to issue a citation to youth who are stopped for status offenses and petty misdemeanors as well as non-traffic misdemeanors. Youth issued a citation are never brought to the detention center, but are released to a parent/guardian.
  • In Florida, law enforcement officers are authorized to issue “civil citations” to youth arrested for the first time on a misdemeanor charge as an alternative to arrest and prosecution. Between April 2014 and March 2015, more than 21,000 youth across the state were eligible for civil citations, which represents about a quarter of all juvenile arrests statewide.
  • The Philadelphia Police Department developed a School Diversion Program to reduce unnecessary school-based arrests. When officers are called to respond to a delinquent act at a school, they can refer the youth to a Diversion Intake Center instead of making an arrest. As of February 2015, PPD was reporting a 57% reduction in school arrests since the initiation of the program.

“Over the coming months, we’re going to be doing a big push to get these policies into place,” said Gassert.  “We’re looking forward to working with the City, with NOPD, and with a host of community partners to make sure our juvenile justice system is fair, smart, and effective.”