Race and the Juvenile Justice System: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

August 29, 2013

This post is courtesy of  Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels

The Civil Rights Division is acutely aware of the impact that the criminal justice system has on communities of color.  As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it remains an inescapable fact that disparities at nearly every stage of  the criminal process keep too many African Americans, Latinos and other minorities in poverty and deny them the opportunities that so many in the civil rights movement fought to achieve. 

The consequences of these inequities are perhaps greatest for America’s youth. The adverse effects of early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent—often, they deprive those caught up in the system of opportunities for educational advancement, employment, access to housing and even the right to vote.  

Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring equal justice and equal opportunity for America’s youngest generation—by, among other things, dismantling the school to prison pipeline and defending the constitutional rights of those in the juvenile justice system—has never been stronger.  The Attorney General’s remarks at the National Action to Realize the Dream March commemorating the 50th anniversary emphasized this commitment and that the quest for justice will continue until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. 

Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

Education is the foundation of the American dream—particularly for students who come from challenging circumstances, it is the gateway to opportunities to participate in the American dream.  Nearly six decades ago, in his opinion in Brown v. Board of Education , Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”  

The Civil Rights Division has been working to ensure that our schools are a road to opportunity—rather than a pipeline to prison—for all students.

This year, the department entered into a first of its kind settlement with the school system in Meridian, Miss. to address racial discrimination in school discipline.  The Civil Rights Division’s investigation into the school system documented truly egregious incidents of disproportionate disciplinary action toward black students. For example, one student was suspended and subsequently arrested for wearing the wrong socks to school. Another student was sprayed with mace and arrested after refusing to tuck in his shirt.

The investigation found that black students frequently received harsher disciplinary consequences—including suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest—than white students for comparable misbehavior.

The department’s settlement with the Meridian school system lays out a far-reaching plan to ensure that students will no longer be unlawfully channeled out of their classrooms and into the juvenile justice system. Through agreements like these, the Civil Rights Division attempts to make certain that our schools provide a pathway to success, rather than incarceration, for all students.

 Juvenile Justice

The division has also been working to protect the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system. In Shelby County, Tenn., a Justice Department investigation found that the juvenile court systemically violated the Due Process rights of youth who appeared for delinquency proceedings, as well as the Equal Protection rights of African-American youth.

At every critical inflection point, we found that African-American youth were statistically more likely than similarly situated whites to be driven deeper into the juvenile justice system. And there was a significantly higher risk for young black men to be removed to the adult system than their white counterparts.

In response to these findings, and working with the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Civil Rights Division entered into a comprehensive settlement to ensure that children in Shelby County will receive the full protections provided under our Constitution. This agreement has already led to significant improvements, including the hiring of a juvenile defender, and will help make Shelby County a model for juvenile courts across the country.  Moreover, data collected from this settlement will help us better understand what intervention works to keep children in the community and out of detention.

The Civil Rights Division is committed to taking the steps necessary to protect the rights of America’s youth—in the classroom, in our courts, and across the country. In pursuing this mission, the division hopes to ensure that future generations live in a country moving ever closer to Dr. King’s dream of true equality and fairness.

 

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