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The juvenile justice system is plagued by striking racial disparities — but health is a big one

The juvenile justice system is plagued by striking racial disparities — but health is a big one

Picture of ChrisAnna Mink
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jacob “Blacc” Jackson, an African American male from an impoverished neighborhood, had a one in three chance of ending up in the justice system. And that’s exactly what happened. 

“I was affected by the school-to-jail track. I got pushed outta high school,” said Blacc, his self-given nickname he chose to embrace his dark skin color. 

Now 20, he was born into an unstable family and placed with child protective services at birth. He’s one of approximately 43,000 youth age 18 and younger involved in the juvenile justice system in the United States. 

When he was in 11th grade, a “pushing incident” with a teacher led the school police to handcuff him, he said, and he was “kicked out of school.” With time on his hands, he got into serious trouble, including burglary and auto theft. He was arrested and put into a holding cell in jail. After one night, his uncle picked him up, saving him from being sent to a locked juvenile detention facility. 

Blacc’s story is far from unique for young men of color. Black, Latino and Indigenous youth are drastically overrepresented in the American juvenile justice system, accounting for more than two-thirds of detainees, compared to 28% of the general youth population. Non-Hispanic whites make up 52% of the youth population but less than one-third of those in the juvenile system. Even for the same offenses, youth of color typically receive more severe punishment at every step in the justice system — from more arrests, to higher rates of detainment and incarceration. 

The reasons for the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system are complex, but one factor often overlooked is health. Before, during and after involvement in the system, the health of these youth is compromised.

Many of the risk factors for criminality overlap with social conditions that also affect health, such as poverty, family disruption, living in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood, and less access to quality health care and legal representation. The role of systemic racism and intrinsic bias in both the health care and legal systems is not fully understood, but likely contribute to the disparities. 

“It's among the reasons that we need to stop locking up so many kids,” said Joshua Rovner, senior advocacy associate of The Sentencing Project, referring to the health impacts of the justice system. The nonprofit is a research and advocacy organization focused on limiting incarceration and identifying alternatives using a racial justice lens. 

Youth entering the justice system are less healthy on average than their peers, suffering from more acute and chronic mental and physical ailments. Among new detainees, 46% have urgent medical needs, such as traumatic physical injuries, dental emergencies and active infections, including COVID-19 in the previous two years. 

Half to three-quarters of youth detainees have at least one behavioral, emotional or mental health disorder or substance use disorder, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. Sexually transmitted infections occur at high rates among incarcerated adolescents and young adults, especially minority youth.  

Detention is often the first time some health problems or educational disorders are identified for many teens. However, the access and quality of care during supervision varies greatly, according to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.   

Adolescents with a history of detention or incarceration die at a rate five to 41 times higher than their peers, often due to drug overdose, suicide, injury or violence. In 2020, gun violence skyrocketed for all youth, but especially for Black teens and young men, accounting for 52% of all deaths for Black males ages 15 to 34.

“The (juvenile justice) system is not built to help children. It’s built to punish them, so it’s no surprise we see (them) come out worse,” said Rovner. He cited research showing that health and educational outcomes are worse and recidivism rates are higher for kids who’ve had harsh punishment, such as being tried as an adult, put behind locked doors or in solitary confinement.

As an infant in foster care, Blacc said he was physically abused by his foster caregiver. He was adopted at age 1, but he believes his health problems started long before he was born in 2001.

In 1994, the son of the woman who would come to be his adoptive mother was suspected of robbery and shot and killed by a Los Angeles Police Department officer. She never recovered from that loss. Blacc said he inherited her anxiety, which he still struggles with, as well as his fear of the police. He describes himself as “hypervigilant” like his mother, always on the lookout for the police or others who might hurt him. 

Hypervigilance can result from the body’s “fight or flight” system being constantly triggered, which can occur after traumatic childhood experiences. Researchers have shown that such toxic stress carries a host of health risks, including increased risk for premature death.

Blacc said finding the advocacy organization Chuco’s Youth Justice Coalition, which also runs a high school for LA youth impacted by the justice system, and their mentors has helped him. 

“Every day that I come to this space, I feel like I’m healed,” said Blacc. He is employed with Chuco’s as a youth organizer and advocacy trainer, hasn’t re-offended and is an LA County Youth Commissioner, which works to improve youth-involved systems in the county. 

Chuco’s includes a youth justice advocacy program, including one-on-one mentoring and advocacy training, and Free L.A. High School, under Youth Build Charter Schools. The center was started by young adults who had been incarcerated or impacted by the juvenile justice system and wanted things to improve.

Emilio Zapien, mentor and communications director at Chuco’s, said their goals are to curb youth incarceration in LA County and beyond and to redirect the resources expended on probation and incarceration to youth development programs. Their work helped lead to the creation of the Los Angeles County Department of Youth Development, slated to open July 1, 2022. The department will help build centers to serve system-impacted youth with job training, transitioning back into their communities and finding other basic needs, such as housing.   

Zapien said the most difficult thing for helping youth is meeting their basic needs, such as housing, jobs and health care. He said, “Chuco’s is a place where they know they can ask for the help they need…It gives people hope.”

“I want folks to know that system is broken, it’s injustice,” Blacc said. “The only way is care first, jail last.”

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