American society needs to be color blind in the way it dispenses justice. A new study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha helps draw attention to the issue.
As summarized in World-Herald news articles, the study’s key findings included: Black, Hispanic and Native American youths in Nebraska are more likely to be in the criminal justice system. Not only are they more likely to be arrested, but they also are more likely to be prosecuted and sent to jail.
There should be no debate about the fundamental need to protect society from criminals. Our legal system needs to keep dangerous offenders, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, from committing further harm.
At the same time, police officers, prosecutors and judges all have a degree of discretion as they work to protect public safety. In all cases they should strive to remove consideration of a suspect’s racial or ethnic background from having any bearing on how cases are to be handled. Specifically, racial or ethnic background should not be a factor when making decisions on arrests; consideration for pretrial diversion rather than placement in detention; transfer from juvenile court to adult court.
Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren, now president of the Urban League of Nebraska, told The World-Herald that the UNO study raises serious concerns. “It’s obvious there’s gross disparities and over-representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, as demonstrated by this report,” he said.
Among the findings in the UNO study:
>> Black, Native American and Hispanic youths make up 37 percent of youths stopped by police. The portion of minority youth placed in pretrial diversion programs was lower: 28.7 percent.
>> The percentages, by group, of youths receiving jail time: 11 percent of whites; 12.5 percent of Hispanics; 18 percent of blacks; 27 percent of Native Americans.
>> Black, Native American and Hispanic youths were more likely to face charges in adult court, rather than being transferred to juvenile court.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine emphasized to The World-Herald that “race or racism should play no part in any function of the criminal judicial system in any way, shape or form.”
The UNO study, he noted, did not have data about the youths’ prior records, which should be one of the main factors in deciding how to handle a case.
Warren recommended caution about placing first-time offenders in custody, rather than in alternative programs, for something relatively minor. When a youth is placed in confinement, Warren says, it generally raises the chances that he or she will be incarcerated as an adult.
This is one key reason why much effort has commendably been done in Douglas County to create alternate programs on the juvenile justice front. And there may be progress at the state level. A new commission, created as part of the child welfare reform, is to draw up strategic plans not only on child welfare but also on juvenile justice matters.
Such an approach is the proper one. Nebraska needs confinement for hard-core offenders, but in other cases, sensible alternatives may be best.
And in all cases, the implementation should be done without any reference to a youth’s race or ethnic background.