The rate of children sent to juvenile detention facilities across the country for delinquent behavior has dropped off dramatically over the past decade and Minnesota is one of five states with the sharpest declines, a new report says.
But behind the numbers in Minnesota and across the country is a disturbing trend: Kids of color are being locked up at a higher rate than whites.
Minnesota was one of five states that slashed its youth confinement rate by more than half between 2001 to 2010.
Spike Bradford, who wrote the new report for the Justice Policy Institute in Washington D.C., said the numbers signify a sea change. He said the country is thinking differently about how to handle kids who are on the wrong side of the law.
"In the '80s and '90s, the nation sort of had a get-tough approach to juvenile justice," Bradford said. "It was 'adult time for adult crime.' And the pendulum has sort of swung over the past 10 to 15 years, where we realize that developmentally appropriate responses for youth produce better outcomes than confinement and detention."
And another new report out today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says in 2010, the nation's juvenile confinement rate reached a 35-year-low. Youth advocates note that the drop-off is saving governments money, without leading to an uptick in crime.
“... Appropriate responses for youth produce better outcomes than confinement and detention.”Report author Spike Bradford
Bradford said one reason why Minnesota is sending fewer kids to detention is because there are simply fewer juvenile arrests.
"It just makes sense: Less in, less out," Bradford said.
But the question of who is continuing to be locked up is concerning to Bradford and others. His figures, gleaned from a federal database, show that about a decade ago in Minnesota, young minorities made up 46 percent of confined kids. Nine years later, the percentage climbed to 58 percent. Yet minorities make up fewer than one in five Minnesotans.
Bradford said Minnesota isn't an outlier: Nationwide, youth of color aren't experiencing the kind of drops in juvenile commitments as their white peers.
"It's sort of the $1 billion question right now," he said. "A lot of people are looking very seriously at why we disproportionately confine not just youth of color, but people of color, across the country."
MN EFFORT SHOWS MODEST GAINS
Yet research from Minnesota's Department of Public Safety shows that the state is making modest gains in closing some of these inequities.
"We have found, actually, that Minnesota is having a reduction in racial disparities," said DPS analyst Dana Swayze, who has has pored over the numbers.
She said the federal data used in Bradford's report casts a wider net and includes children in non-secure settings, such as group homes and shelters. Swayze's calculations shows the disparities are actually closing when you look at only the young people detained in secure facilities, which are reserved for kids who represent the highest risk to public safety.
Yet she's not sugarcoating the disparity problem. In a report published last year, Swayze found that Native Americans are nearly four times more likely than white youth to be detained in Minnesota. And the black-to-white disparity is about one-and-a-half.
"To say that we're having improvement is great, but we have a long way to go before we have equitable outcomes for white youth and youth of color at all stages of our system," Swayze said.
While neither of the new reports answers the question of what's causing the disparities, one person who's working on the problem suspects it may have to do with policies and practices upstream.
Brian Smith, coordinator of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in Minnesota, said if police are targeting certain neighborhoods, it could result in higher arrest rates for kids of color.
The national initiative, promoted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which released one of the new reports, operates in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, and St. Louis counties. It aims to make sure the system is detaining only the juvenile offenders who present a risk to public safety.
Yet eight years after the initiative took ground in Minnesota, Smith said you're more likely to find minority kids locked up in juvenile-detention facilities today than before the program began.
"If Hennepin County or Ramsey County has an average daily population of, say, 12 kids, then out of those 12 kids, on any given day you can see even eight to 10 — or possibly all 12 — are youth of color," Smith said.
Smith said in the four targeted counties where the initiative is in place, the percentage of detained youth of color increased over six years from about 73 percent to 80 percent. In some jurisdictions, they make up as much as 95 percent of the population.
Smith, however, stands by the program. He just said there's more work to be done.