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Equality Before the Law: Race and Ethnicity in Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice System

All youth involved in the juvenile justice system deserve equal access to appropriate treatment in order to become healthy, law-abiding adults. Responding to problematic behaviors in an age-appropriate way is important to ensure all youth have the best opportunities to succeed. However, both in Nebraska and nationally, the data show disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity occurs throughout our juvenile justice system, with youth of color experiencing far different outcomes than their white peers for similar infractions.

Our recent report, Equality Before the Law: Race and Ethnicity in Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice System, examines disproportionate minority contact in Nebraska’s juvenile justice system, using data and existing research to highlight why these disparities exist and provide recommendations for how Nebraska can work to provide an equitable and just response to problematic behaviors for all youth.

Teenagers of all races and ethnicities self-report nearly identical levels of criminal behavior, yet youth of color are more likely to be arrested and receive harsher treatment or punishments than their white peers. These inequitable outcomes can exacerbate disadvantages youth of color may face and create obstacles to healthy development because research shows that youth who interact with the juvenile justice system are more likely to have future interactions with the criminal justice system as adults. Furthermore, a criminal conviction as a teenager can affect an individual’s ability to secure steady employment as an adult and reach financial security.

Addressing racial and ethnic disparities in our justice system is not easy. Public sentiment is easily focused on either on the individual youth behavior (i.e. the incorrect conclusion that certain youth engage in worse behaviors) or on individual bad actors (i.e. the incorrect conclusion that all outcomes are the result of certain racist people). Instead, we need to ask ourselves: what can we do to improve the system to meet all of our children’s needs, not just some? If the data persistently show our system is not working for a particular population of youth, we have a societal imperative to recalculate our responses to achieve better outcomes for all.

Read the full report here.

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