Youth Incarceration Numbers are Down But Racial Disparities are Up--A New Fact Sheet from The Sentencing Project

Last week The Sentencing Project released its first of three fact sheets on racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration. State by state analysis shows that despite long-term declines in youth incarceration overall, racial disparities continue to grow.

On any given day, approximately 86,900 youth under the age of 21 are detained in public and private detention centers, group homes, camps, ranches, and other correctional institutions. The numbers show that black youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. There are six states in which Black youth are 10 times more likely than white youth to be held in secure placements. These states are New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Since 2001, racial disparities in the population of incarcerated youth have increased in 37 states, and at least doubled in five: Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, Delaware, and Wisconsin.

The information contained in this fact sheet is very important for the work we do on issues affecting children of incarcerated parents. National data on the number of incarcerated youth who are parents is hard to find. However, we know from statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice and from a recent report by Annie E. Casey Foundation entitled, “A Shared Sentence” that of young people 24 and under in state and federal facilities, 45 percent of the men are parents. For that same age group of young people under 24, 48 percent of the young women in federal prison and 55 percent of the young women in state facilities are mothers. Further, a program called Just Beginning that focuses on incarcerated teen fathers reports that 25%-30% of incarcerated teenagers in Dallas County, Texas, are fathers.

When we consider issues faced by incarcerated teens who are parents, we should be reminded of the decades of research documenting the detrimental impacts of parents’ incarceration on their children. Studies have shown a close yet complex connection between parental incarceration and negative outcomes for children. Parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE): in other words, an experience that is likely to negatively affect children long after the event has occurred. Therefore, it is of great benefit to consider all possibilities for preventing and intervening in the incarceration of young people who are parents.

The acute racial disparity within the prison system is reflected among the children of incarcerated parents. Black children are eight times more likely than white children to experience parental incarceration. Indigenous and Latinx children also experience alarming rates of parental incarceration that far exceed the rate for white children. Studies show that parental incarceration has significant social costs for families that falls unevenly across racial lines, impacting black families most. A particular study showed that parental incarceration results in an “intergenerational transmission of inequality,” a specific term that researchers are using to explain how the experience of having an incarcerated parent can negatively impact childhood mental health and well-being, leading to reduced access to education, and employment opportunities for generations. Well-meaning advocates often claim that parental incarceration causes intergenerational incarceration. However, when we look more deeply, we see that the research indicates that the concentration of risks found within many families experiencing parental incarceration, like poverty, adverse neighborhood conditions, and violence exposure, is more likely the source of these intergenerational impacts--not parental incarceration in itself.

With youth diversion programs being implemented nationwide, this fact sheet shows us that white youth are accessing alternatives to incarceration at greater rates, or not being arrested in the first place. Therefore, the underlying structural racism in how we do business has not yet changed. Next week we will bring our analysis from a fact sheet to the ground level, highlighting an example in Seattle, WA. In Seattle, a reduction in the population of incarcerated youth has been accompanied by a rise in the proportion of incarcerated Black youth. 

*Also published on HuffPost.

Lill M. Hewko



Thank you James for your comment. From reading your pieces, I think we both agree that our efforts to end racial disparities are not currently working and that simply lowering arrest rates is not a sufficient solution in and of itself. Reducing negative outcomes is definitely not enough if race (class, ability, gender) are not taken into account on how the plans to reduce such outcomes are carried out.

I think instead, it shows us that we must take deeper approaches to how we undo institutional and structural racism. A racial impact statement on a juvenile justice law will not capture or reduce all of our problems if we do not for example work on the underlying problems creating the school to prison pipeline. I think anyone paying attention or living in this world as a person of color is well aware of the limited opportunities presented for people of color and the higher likelihood of being in contact with the police. Instead my conclusion is that in reducing arrest rates, we have done this for certain communities, white youth. This report lays out more information on the situation in Seattle, WA created with some of our top social science researchers such as Katherine Beckett: “PRELIMINARY REPORT ON RACE AND WASHINGTON’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM”.  I appreciate dialoging on this. And I think that solutions such as those proposed here by Right On Crime for example, would help reduce disparities if the programs were informed by race. By informed I mean understanding institutional and structural racism and the outcomes of this racism on individuals and our systems. 

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