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Race Matters in Juvenile Justice

In the wake of a violent fall, with the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, among others, disproportionate minority contact with the law has become a front page issue.  Though we are grateful that Nebraska has not suffered through a tragedy of this nature, information presented at the recent Race Matters conference made clear that we are not exempt from the challenge our nation faces when it comes to the over-representation of children of color at all points in the justice system.  Last year’s Kids Count data frames the issue clearly:

From Kids Count 2013, data drawn from U.S. Census, YRTC reports, individual detention center reports, and JUSTICE system

The juvenile justice breakout sessions on day one of the conference focused on where we currently stand.  In the morning, presenters Dr. Anne Hobbs with the U.N.O. Juvenile Justice Institute, and Monica Miles-Steffens and Kristi Leslie with the Office of Juvenile Probation spoke on the data coming out of Nebraska’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.  They identified areas of concern both in the frequency with which children of color are detained relative to their percentage of the total youth population, and with the average length of stay in detention for children of color.  (Their Powerpoint presentation, including slides of data measures from 2014, can be found here.)  Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU in Nebraska and a departing state senator, kicked off the afternoon by leading a frank discussion of racial profiling in police stops and arrests in Nebraska.  She shared a couple of tools with participants to consider and respond to profiling: an interactive map created by USA Today showing the racial gap in arrests across the nation, and the Mobile Justice app created by the ACLU for individuals to document their interactions with police. Finally, Nicky Clark and Elizabeth Ajongo presented on the powerful work being done by Refugee Juvenile Justice Advocacy Program in Douglas County, advising participants on the particular challenges faced by refugee populations coming before the courts, and culturally competent ways in which stakeholders can work with these unique communities.  (Their presentation is available here.)

Keynote Speaker Dr. Paul Gorski speaks to conference participants during a session break.

Day two focused on where are are going, and how we can get there.  Participants were asked to imagine headlines they would like to see in the future regarding juvenile justice in Nebraska, and then, using the seven steps to racial equity tool, worked through barriers and envisioned solutions in order to reach that goal.  Suggested headlines included “Equitable Treatment Achieved for Youth Across Racial-Ethnic Groups in Juvenile Justice” and “Recidivism Rates Down Among Juveniles after Reforming Detention Practices.”  Proposed policy changes included funding and incentivizing the use of alternatives to detention for all children coming before the courts, carefully validating the risk assessment tools used by probation to make detention decisions and dispositional recommendations, and using data to continuously evaluate and improve outcomes for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds. 

At the end of the conference, participants were charged with bringing their knowledge and recommendations back to their fields of work to continue to push for change.  This is a challenge we can all take up, as we work toward a future where all children in Nebraska are truly equal before the law.

Thank you to taking the time to share!


  1. REPLY
    Kathy Karsting says

    What I learned about juvenile justice and inequities in treatment at the Race Matters conference was enough to convince me that this is a compelling public health issue of life course significance. More reading has led me to learning more about gender inequity, and the long road ahead for meaningful reform that takes into full account brain science and child development.

    I think and hope public health has something meaningful to offer to collaborations with other child and youth advocates to assure the tools and methods of the juvenile justice system are used to help, not harm, those it serves.

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