The Pipeline for Black Children Needs to Be Fixed, Too | Opinion

Thousands have packed the streets in protest, as the nation collectively responds to George Floyd's death. The protestors include many children—images of innocence that are particularly hard to shake. Indeed, children are some of the most vulnerable to the racial disproportionality that pervades our criminal justice system.

The everyday injustices black youth face don't make the headlines, but their cumulative effects have led us to this moment. From black children being more likely to be arrested for the same conduct as their white peers to facing harsher punishments, children of color are treated differently at every stage in our system. Even controlling for age and prior criminal history, studies have found that black individuals are treated differently. For example, available data suggest that there is little difference in the rates of actual delinquency among youth of different racial backgrounds when it comes to two common offenses, property and drug crimes, but black youth are far more likely to be arrested.

Simply put, we have a justice system in serious need of reform.

Sadly, black children are viewed differently as early as preschool, where they are seen as older and more culpable for their conduct, resulting in more disciplinary actions. These actions create the foundation for the "school to prison" pipeline, as referrals to the justice system are higher for black youth. The effects continue as children get older, often resulting in black youth being more likely to be charged as adults for their mistakes.

Another effect? Police officers see boys like Tamir Rice—shot by the police when he was only twelve—as much older than they actually are.

Too often painted as a partisan issue, racial disparities that affect our children should concern us all. The existence of racial disproportionality directly harms the legitimacy of our institutions, as well as principles of fairness, decency and procedural justice. The fact that our children, the most innocent among us, are treated differently because of the color of their skin is not a conservative or liberal issue; it is a human issue. We have the best chance of responding to inequities in our system if we work in a bipartisan fashion, across the aisle.

There is no question that deep-seated racism and implicit bias are difficult to counteract. But the fact that some jurisdictions have had success in reducing disparities means it can be done. Many potential changes could produce great benefits, but a starting point should be keeping children out of the justice system altogether, accomplished through changes in our schools and diversion policies.

Funeral for George Floyd in Houston
Funeral for George Floyd in Houston GODOFREDO A. VASQUEZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Our educational system is no longer separate from our justice system, with an estimated 43 percent of schools now housing a "school resource officer (SRO)"—armed police officers that are permanent features at schools. Black children are more likely to attend a school with officers present, where they are more likely to be arrested for disciplinary issues, even though they do not "act out" any more than their white peers. It's not clear that SROs make our schools safer, but it's likely that much of this childish misbehavior could be handled without law enforcement. George Floyd's death has pushed many school districts, including those in Portland, Minneapolis, Madison and Denver, to reassess their SRO policies.

A lack of training is also a clear issue. Given how often police officers and young people interact, all police officers—but particularly SROs—would benefit from more training on youth development and racially equitable services. According to a 2019 report, only three states mandate training to help police respond in developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and racially equitable ways.

Similarly, once children do have contact with law enforcement, police officers can be the first line of defense to divert low-risk children out of the system altogether. There is clear evidence that for most children, further criminal justice system involvement makes them more likely to reoffend again. Los Angeles County, for example, has had early promising results with diversion programs to keep black and brown youth out of the system all together. Policy changes like reducing inequities in stops and referrals to diversion programs, along with helping youth of color to enroll in and finish programs, have been promising.

Our country is at an inflection point. People of all races are speaking up regarding the injustice that black people face at the hands of police. If we restrict ourselves solely to police reforms, we will have missed an important opportunity to respond to wider disparities that exist system-wide. The systems affecting our children, the youngest and most vulnerable among us, are a vital place to start the work we have ahead as a nation.

Nila Bala is the criminal justice associate director at the R Street Institute and a former Baltimore assistant public defender.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.