LINCOLN — Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren on Wednesday called for comprehensive reform of the state juvenile justice system, in response to a new study showing widespread racial disparities in how cases are handled.
“It's obvious there's gross disparities and overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, as demonstrated by this report,” said Warren, now president of the Urban League of Nebraska.
University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers, who conducted the federally mandated study on behalf of the Nebraska Crime Commission, said they found a clear pattern: Black, Hispanic and Native American youths in Nebraska are more likely to be caught up in the justice system at nearly every turn.
Not only are they more likely to be arrested, they also are more likely to be prosecuted and sent to jail.
“People like to point fingers at the police department, but the disparities occur throughout the system,” said researcher Anne Hobbs, director of UNO's Juvenile Justice Institute.
Warren was interviewed by telephone from Houston, where he was attending an Annie E. Casey Foundation conference addressing racial disparity in juvenile justice and alternatives to detention. He and Juvenile Court Judge Vernon Daniels are co-chairmen of a Douglas County committee that is studying juvenile detention alternatives in an effort to reduce racial disparities.
Warren said the study highlights the need for juvenile justice officials to take seriously concerns about racial disparity and to consider other viable options to keep minority youth out of jail.
He praised efforts in Douglas County to develop more facilities that rely on staff, rather than locked cell doors, to monitor youth accused of minor offenses. Jail-like detention facilities should be reserved for youth whose behavior poses a public safety risk, he said.
The study examined cases from 2010 and 2011. Some of the findings:
• African-American, Native American and Hispanic youths are more likely to be taken into custody after being stopped by police for suspected law violations.
Black youths, for example, comprise 6.9 percent of the state's population ages 10 to 17. But they comprise 26 percent of the youths who were arrested.
• Although 37 percent of youths stopped by police are black, Native American or Hispanic, only 28.7 percent of youths referred to pretrial diversion programs are members of minority groups.
• Black, Native American and Hispanic youths are more likely to face charges in adult court, rather than being transferred to juvenile court.
• And black and Native American youths were more likely to be sent to jail — 27 percent of Native American youths and 18 percent of black youths sentenced in adult court got jail time.
Only 11 percent of white youths and 12.5 percent of Hispanic youths got jail time.
The study cost $40,000, paid through a $200,000 federal grant for juvenile diversion programs. At stake was more than $1 million in federal funding that helps pay for juvenile services in Nebraska.
Christopher Harris, coordinator of Nebraska's Disproportionate Minority Contact program, said the findings are consistent with previous research.
The Crime Commission official said Nebraska law officers and the justice system have made tremendous strides in the past decade to reduce disparate treatment of minority youths.
“This is not finger-pointing. This is a positive piece of information to help us move forward,” Harris said of the study.
Indeed, the study notes that youths of any racial background who are charged with multiple and more serious offenses are more likely to be prosecuted in adult court and sentenced to jail.
But Hobbs and co-author Elizabeth Neeley said their analysis showed that the seriousness of the offense does not explain why minority youths are disproportionately involved in the court system.
Lacking data, the study did not attempt to evaluate how socioeconomic factors or prior court records influence racial disparity, Hobbs said.
She hopes to study those issues soon and is working with law enforcement to analyze factors that influence how frequently police stop minority youths for questioning.
Warren called for police to be judicious when confronted with cases giving them some discretion and to perhaps think twice before taking a first-time offender into custody on a charge like disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice.
“Some cases, at times, are discretionary, with first-time offenders who don't pose a risk to public safety and we're more annoyed by their behavior than threatened by it,” he said.
One solution would be for the juvenile justice system to adopt more objective criteria for when youths can be arrested and detained, and for when they are eligible for diversion and probation, said Neeley, who is director of the court system's Nebraska Minority Justice Committee.
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