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Recent reports by the W. Haywood Burns Institute and NAACP deploring disproportionate minority confinement in juvenile facilities raise an important ongoing issue. It is true, as the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s own investigations agree, that black and brown youth receive increasingly harsh treatment as they move from arrest through sentencing stages that the juvenile justice system must address.

But there’s another troubling issue. A key CJCJ mission has been to reduce the use of incarceration and other confinements for youths and adults who commit nonviolent offenses that do not threaten public safety. Unfortunately, the goal of reserving prison space for the most violent offenders may conflict with that of reducing disproportionate minority confinement.

Here’s the conflict: compared to California white youth, the arrest rate for California black youth is three times higher for all offenses, but 10 times higher for violent felonies, and 17 times higher for murder. And, while arrest statistics are rightly suspected of bias, public health statistics show that compared to white youth, black youth are 21 times more likely to be murdered and suffer 28 times the rate of firearms assault injury and death. Thus, if we restrict imprisonment to the most violent offenders and prioritize firearms offenses – both goals of many criminal justice reforms — disproportionate minority confinement is likely to increase even more.

Similarly, it’s true that drug offenses lead to vast disproportionate minority confinement even as surveys show white and black youth use illegal drugs at similar rates. But California’s 2007 arrest figures reveal another issue: For white youth, only 20% of drug arrests are for felony sale or manufacture, compared to 38% for black youth. Conversely, 67% of white youths’ drug arrests are for simple marijuana possession, compared to 36% of black youths’ drug arrests. Few progressive groups would support imprisonment of youth or adults for misdemeanor drug possession. CJCJ has repeatedly urged investigation of drug arrest tactics, especially in San Francisco where blacks are even more disproportionately arrested, and pressed for sentencing reforms such as Proposition 36 that reduce imprisonment of drug offenders.

We doubt reformers would support reducing disproportionate minority confinement by locking up more white youths for misdemeanors; nearly all would like to see fewer youth of all colors imprisoned. Reformers are right to detail systemic racial biases, especially for drug and gang offenses, at the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing stages that must be addressed. But confronting the root causes of disproportionately high levels of violence in many black and Hispanic communities remains the key to disproportionate minority confinement for youth and adults.