Task force takes aim at forums on race disparities in juvenile courts

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail. Photo: Eric Kelley. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail. Photo: Eric Kelley.

African-Americans make up 47 percent of Charlottesville’s youth population, but nearly 70 percent of the young people who appear before city judges are black.  Of the 788 kids ages 10 to 17 who appeared before a judge in 2009-2012, 550 were black, and 171 were white. The stark disparity has caused the black community to question whether the system is stacked against its young people, and now city officials are trying to answer the same question.

Roughly 40 people gathered in the Friendship Court Community Center last Tuesday, where city staffer and City of Charlottesville Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System leader Mike Murphy and Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) attorney Jeree Thomas led a conversation among parents, teachers, and legal experts. At issue were the results of a study that revealed disproportionate racial representation in the city’s juvenile justice system.

In 2009 the task force, which includes city officials and members of the University of Virginia’s educational psychology department, began examining risk factors for kids ages 10 to 17, of all races, in comparison with their entrance into and time spent in juvenile detention and on probation. The group presented its findings to City Council in the spring of 2012, and they were consistent across the board: Even among those with similar home lives, educational backgrounds, and other risk factors, black youth are one and a half times more likely than their white counterparts to enter the juvenile justice system. And once they’re in, they have a greater chance of staying in the system longer.

The task force is currently researching human services models used in other communities, and in collaboration with the LAJC, finishing up a round of interviews with local legal experts. Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo is also contributing to the process, implementing a new system to collect data on field stops to determine the race and age of those stopped, and why the police pulled them over. The new setup will make it possible to look at an initial police contact and follow the case all the way through to a final disposition in court, which Virginia police departments are not required to do.

High school teacher and youth advocate Wes Bellamy, who attended last week’s meeting, said much of the solution starts with parents taking accountability for their kids. And when that’s not enough, he added, collaboration is key.

“The community has to pick up the slack,” he said. “Whatever happened to the old African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’”

Bellamy said he was encouraged by the open dialogue at the meeting, but was surprised by the lack of uniforms.

“Why weren’t there police officers there?” he said. “I really think it’s important for us to all have representation there, and to build relationships.”

Longo said he and several officers have participated in meetings and interviews with the task force and been closely involved with the process, and missing last week’s meeting was a fluke due to scheduling conflicts.

“There’s no good explanation for our absence,” Longo said, but his department is committed to being part of the solution. His officers all undergo cultural diversity training, and the department has been actively involved with the Boys & Girls Club to connect with young people in the community.

Murphy said he hopes the group will be ready to present new findings, including a year’s worth of new police data, and concrete solutions to City Council again by this fall, and the series of forums is intended to get families and community members involved.

“All the players are at the table, and are willing to make more changes,” Murphy said.

The next meeting is at 6pm on Tuesday, July 16, at the Boys & Girls Club, with two more following before the end of the month at the West Haven Community Center and South First Street.