By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– The subject of minorities being arrested and incarcerated at a higher percentage than white people has been an on-going discussion topic in Johnson County, and was cited during debates over the county’s proposed new justice center. However that discussion focused on adult contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice center, and not necessarily on juvenile offenders.
In March, the Iowa Department of Human Rights Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning (CJJP) presented a report on “Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC)” to county officials.
“Minority youth are overrepresented, in Iowa and nationally, at a variety of juvenile justice system decision-making phases,” the report said. The CJJP provides technical assistance to Black Hawk, Polk and Woodbury counties in addition to Johnson in an effort to “identify issues of concern and to improve the operation and effectiveness of the justice and juvenile justice systems.”
“When looking at disparities in juvenile justice we find that most of the disparity happens on the front end of the system,” said LaTasha Massey, Johnson County DMC coordinator. “The disparity is the highest at the arrest stage (decision point) of the juvenile justice system.” Massey also said there is much speculation as to why. “Many believe that it is the discretion of the police that impacts that number and that calls from the schools also impacts these numbers.”
2011 Census Data for Johnson County showed 10,527 in the youth population category, with 78 percent of those listed as Caucasian, 10 percent black, seven percent Hispanic, five percent Asian and one percent Native American. However black youth made up 59.8 percent of the county’s detention numbers between 2008 and 2012, while whites made up only 41.4 percent. The report does note, “overall detention numbers are small. Detention numbers and rates for all racial/ethnic groups were lower in 2012 than in 2008.” The report goes on to show an average detention rate for black youth at 19.1, compared to 11.6 for whites. “The average rate of detention for African-American youth is 1.7 times higher than the rate for Caucasian youth,” the report stated.
Fifth degree theft was the most common offense for both white and black youth with 283 cases between 2010 and 2012 for whites and 225 for blacks. Fifth degree is defined as a simple misdemeanor and is any theft involving values of less than $200. Three drug-related charges were in the top-five list of offenses for whites, but not for blacks. Possession/purchase of alcohol by an underage person, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia resulted in 131, 78 and 61 cases for white youth during the three-year period. White juveniles were charged with 50 assault cases and 50 disorderly conduct– fighting or violent behavior– cases during the time period.
Conversely, disorderly conduct– fighting or violent behavior– led to 139 arrests for black juveniles, 96 cases of assault and 62 cases of interference with official acts.
The report said overrepresentation in disorderly conduct and interference with official acts offenses “offer the greatest opportunity for the judicious exercise of discretion by justice system representatives.” In 2012 the total number of criminal cases referred to Juvenile Court was 303 for whites and 304 for blacks. While 207 white juveniles were diverted, only 169 were for blacks. Charges were filed in 87 cases for whites and 102 for blacks. The chart in the report did not specify what the offenses were, or their seriousness, however.
The CJJP report also stated discussions regarding DMC often expand to larger societal issues affecting minorities, such as unemployment and poverty. The report called these two factors, “…risk factors that can be linked to increased rates of criminal and delinquent behavior.” The study also said research reflects distrust on the part of minorities of institutions (such as the school districts) and therefore may not access formal and informal opportunities for help in preventing such behavior.
Massey noted a wide range of activities; affinity groups, afterschool programs and enrichment opportunities exist, particularly for minority youth. “An example would be a program such as Children of Promise which pairs mentors up with children who have a parent that is involved in the adult corrections system to have another positive adult in the child’s life, to balance out some of the negative impacts of having not only the parent in the system, but the entire family as well.”
Overrepresentation for African-American youth in Johnson County, like most of Iowa’s major metropolitan areas, continues to be an issue, the report stated, and county supervisor Rod Sullivan agreed.
“As everybody here knows, there have been a number of different venues recently where the issues of race have come up,” Sullivan said in a July joint meeting of the county board of supervisors and various municipal officials in North Liberty. “Its come up with the ad hoc committee in Iowa City, with (discussions on) the diversity policy for the Iowa City School District and (during) the justice center vote in Johnson County. So there’s been a lot of discussion going on.” Sullivan said that a part of the on-going justice center planning, is a multi-jurisdictional forum to, “try and figure out some of the things we can do better in these areas.”
A group comprised of Massey, Judge Deb Minot, Kevin Bailey of the Iowa City Police Department, Joan Vandenberg with the Iowa City Community School District and Chris Wyatt with the Juvenile Court Services is heading to Georgetown University for special training. There they will attend a certificate program entitled, “Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice.”
“This is a weeklong training offered at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University,” said Lynette Jacoby, Johnson County Social Services Coordinator. Jacoby said the training is being funded in part with decategorization dollars that were designated by the Chief Juvenile Court Officer for the Sixth Judicial District, of which Johnson County is a part.
“Decategorization is designed to redirect child welfare and juvenile justice funding to services which are more preventive, family-centered and community-based,” Jacoby said. “(The goal is to) reduce use of restrictive approaches that rely on institutional, out-of-home placement (for juvenile offenders).” Jacoby said the five representatives would bring back a plan, or best practices for implementation in an effort to reduce the overrepresentation of minority youth. Additionally, a forum is tentatively planned for October to discuss an implementation strategy.
Sullivan told the group he hoped every community in the county would be represented when the forum is held. “We don’t want to have some kind of forum about this topic and have one city not there and have an incident out there. We think it’s important, it affects us all, and I think it tells the community that we’re all bought-in,” Sullivan said.