Juvenile Justice in Champaign County— A Racial Disparity

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The nature of the daily interaction
between local police and minority youth
has become a topic of great discussion in
our community. The recent police shooting
of Kiwane Carrington and the charging
of the other 15 year-old involved have
highlighted the tensions and distrust that
many in the black community have of
local policing practices. The handling of
the incident by the State’s Attorney’s office
has also raised the related question of
whether the criminal justice system itself
can be fair and impartial to minority
youth. In short, people are asking, “is
there a racial disparity in policing practices
and the dispensing of juvenile justice
in Champaign County?”
To partially address that question,
Champaign Citizens for Peace and Justice
(CUCPJ) requested through the Freedom of
Information Act documents from the State’s
Attorney’s Office detailing all juvenile cases
filed in Champaign County since January
2008. Before examining this information, a
couple of demographic facts must be established.
According to 2008 U.S. Census figures,
Champaign County’s juvenile population
(persons under 18) was 38,533.
Approximately 30,000 or 78% were white,
4400 or 11.5% were black, and 4000 or
10% were Asian and other. This background
serves as a critical lens when reviewing
the number of charges and types of
juvenile cases filed in Champaign County.
There were a total of 525 juvenile cases
filed between January 2008 and October
2009, a 22 month period of time. That’s
one case for every 73 young people in
Champaign County. But when broken
down by race, 384 or 73% involved
blacks, 106 or 20% involved whites, and
35 or 7% involved “others.” When viewed
in relationship to each race’s proportion
of the population, the disparity is glaring.
During this period 3.5 of every 1000
white youth faced a criminal charge in
Champaign County while 86.7 of every
1000 black youth did. Black youth are
24.8 times more likely to be involved
with the police and charged with a criminal
act than white youth.
Is the behavior of black youth 24.8 times
more criminal than white youth? While
everyone recognizes the serious educational,
social and economic problems faced by
black youth, do these alone explain this
huge discrepancy? Or, could black youth be
experiencing a different type of interaction
with police, a situation where police may be
profiling black youth or exercising more
aggressive policing practices than toward
white youth? Is there an unwritten zero-tolerance
directive by the police department in
effect in the black community?
An example of this practice might be
seen when looking at “resisting arrest
and/or obstructing justice” charges filed by
the State’s Attorney. There were 24 cases in
all, 22 or 92% of them involved black
youth and no white youth were identified
with any case. Does it seem reasonable that
only black youth resist arrest or obstruct
justice? How is this discrepancy to be
explained, other than by acknowledging
that race is an unspoken factor in police
Once young people enter the juvenile
justice system, how are their cases generally
disposed? Reviewing conviction rates
provides a helpful insight.
Again, during these twenty-two months
(1/08–10/09), of 525 juvenile cases filed 344
had been “disposed,” i.e., a decision rendered.
There were 95 misdemeanor and 60
felony convictions. The remaining 189 cases
were either plea bargained or simply dismissed.
Broken down further by race, 48.8%
or 120 of the disposed black cases ended in a
felony or misdemeanor conviction, while
36.6% or 26 of the disposed white cases
ended with such a conviction. In other
words, the conviction rate was 12.2 percentage
points higher for black youth than white
youth. One would assume in a fair and
impartial justice system these conviction
rates would be very similar. But they are not!
So, what accounts for black youth receiving a
significantly higher percentage of convictions
than white youth? If not race, what?
Even this cursory review of recent juvenile
statistics highlights serious and huge
disparities between black and white youth in
Champaign County. Clearly, more comprehensive
and detailed information is needed
on this subject. However, these limited statistics
do provide a glimpse of a major local
problem, a situation where black and white
youth have qualitatively different interactions
and experiences with the police and
juvenile criminal justice system. Until the
community admits and addresses these differences,
these inequities in juvenile justice
for minority youth will persist.

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