Members of a large task force formed by the city to look into unequal rates of arrest and incarceration among black and white kids in Charlottesville are clamoring for more action.
The outcry comes in the wake of a recently completed study presented to City Council by the same task force, which found that black children are arrested, placed on probation, and jailed more often than white kids.
But while the report’s findings have members of the Disproportion Minority Contact (DMC) task force and city councilors concerned, their main worry is the slow pace with which the city is moving to solve a problem that was widely recognized three years ago.
“For those of us who served on the task force and endorsed the recommendations, it’s a frustrating experience to spend two years and come to no conclusions, which is really where we’re at,” said Jeff Fogel, a long-time civil rights advocate and local attorney who serves on the DMC task force. “It’s a shame it takes so long just to get where we got.”
“I don’t know that we know the answer to solve the problem, but we certainly haven’t gotten started on the question of why are black youths disproportionately arrested,” Fogel added.
Back in July, 2009, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families formed a separate task force. After nearly two years of study, in 2011 it determined that black children ages 10-17 were “substantially overrepresented” in the juvenile justice, child welfare, education, as well as physical and mental health systems. Particularly, it found that black youth were more than twice as likely as white kids to be arrested, placed on probation, go to trial, and held in juvenile jail.
But three years and another task force later, the city is still struggling to identify why black children are in the juvenile justice system more often than their white peers and what to do about it.
The most recent DMC task force report included some good news, namely, that juvenile arrests have decreased overall by more than 70 percent since 2000. It also found less racial disparity within the juvenile justice system than the previous task force report—that is, black and white kids more often than not have similar outcomes once they’re in the system. The recent study credits that difference to a larger data sample size.
But racial disproportionality—the overrepresentation of black kids in the system compared to the overall racial makeup of the community—is still a problem. From 2009 to July 2013, the task force found that out of the 207 kids arrested by police, about 60 percent were black. Black children make up about 41 percent of the city’s population, while white kids make up about 51 percent.
Some disparities persisted with regard to outcome: Out of 62 children placed on probation, 50 were black while only 12 of them were white. And out of 111 kids found to have violated the terms of their probation over the same time period, 95 were black and 16 were white.
The task force did not find any evidence of outright racial bias towards black children and cautioned people from interpreting “the data as saying that race or ethnicity causes” the disproportionate number of black children in the justice system.
“There is definitely more to be done,” said Emily Dreyfus, the community education and outreach director for Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program, who also serves on the task force. “I had hoped we would be implementing different prevention programs at this point.”
Mike Murphy, the city’s director of human services, said in an e-mail that he understands people’s frustration with the pace, but that due diligence must be done in order to create a lasting impact.
“It may be that we are moving more slowly than some would hope, but this is complex and sensitive work and even as we enter an implementation phase I am certain it will require the attention of our group and the community for some time,” wrote Murphy.
At the recent council meeting, Murphy said that while the data analyzed in the report, which was compiled by two Ph.D. students at UVA, was helpful, it left certain questions unanswered and the task force has much work still to do.
“Certainly, kids of different races are entering [the juvenile justice system] at very different rates,” Murphy said. “There’s a difference in proportionality at the front end. Our research in the future needs to look at how does that happen.”
That’s not enough to alleviate the concerns of task force members who live in black communities. Those concerns also reflect the perceptions of some of the city’s black children, who feel targeted because of their race, according to answers given by 14 kids who participated in three youth forums last November at the City of Promise.
“Black kids get blamed, for example in school, when white kids don’t get in trouble,” said one child in the forum, according to a follow-up report.
There are a range of cultural and socioeconomic factors, as well as family and neighborhood issues, including a lack a mental health services, the kids said.
“Black kids see bad things in their neighborhoods and think that it’s okay,” said another child.
Dreyfus, Fogel, members of the city’s Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), associate professor Walt Heinecke at UVA’s Curry School, and local NAACP chapter president Dr. M. Rick Turner plan to meet this week to devise a united strategy for pushing the task force and the city towards more action. And over the next month, the task force is aiming to take on more members to add to the community’s input with plans to schedule a meeting in August to discuss their agenda and way forward, said Murphy.
The task force made five recommendations, which the City Council has adopted, including one that would require all police officers to complete a training program to help them interact with children of different ethnic, cultural and financial backgrounds.
The city has received a $27,000 federal grant for officers to complete the training, most likely Strategies for Youth, a Massachusetts-based program started in 2009 that has proved highly effective in improving relationships between cops and kids.
Many members of the task force hope that will help what PHAR member Deirdre Gilmore—whose grandson spent time in juvenile detention after an arrest and who has been outspoken in her calls for a close examination of the system—described as very rough interactions with police.
“We don’t need police that terrorize the community because that’s a problem,” said Gilmore. “When they come into our neighborhoods, they come with an attitude…They’re pleasant to people on the Downtown Mall, but when they come into our neighborhoods, they’re rude and disrespectful, even when they come into our homes.”