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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been tasked with a hefty to-do list. The new administration will have to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, expedite vaccine distribution, address rising unemployment, and unify the nation. 

We at Youth First add one more task to the list. If confirmed as Attorney General, Merrick Garland must lead the Justice Department with fairness and work to address the racial inequities inherent in our criminal legal system, especially the juvenile justice system that has harmed so many young people of color.

The juvenile justice system takes away young people’s childhood, joy and ability to grow. It separates families and prevents communities from thriving. This unfortunate reality is even more true for Black children, who face harsher circumstances both in and out of facilities. Black children have not been allowed to be children at all, and the racial disparities reflect that.

On any given day, 37,500 youth in the United States are confined in facilities as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement.

On any given day, 37,500 youth in the United States are confined in facilities as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. In the last 20 years, we have witnessed youth incarceration decrease by 60%, largely due to the efforts of organizers and advocates on the ground. But while the number of youth who have come in contact with the criminal legal system has decreased tremendously, one number has stayed the same.

Black youth in America are five times more likely than white youth to be under state supervision and held in detentions, prisons or group homes. This number has not changed since 1997. Black and white youth engage in risky behavior at roughly the same rates, but Black youth are far more likely to be arrested than white youth, rather than giving them the opportunity to repair the harm they’ve caused. Now more than ever, we need to question the role of youth prisons — these have not been tools of rehabilitation, but of punishment and control of Black youth. The Biden administration and Congressional leaders must examine the harms of the juvenile justice system through a racial equity lens.

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The fight to transform the juvenile justice system is not new. Reforms across the country continue to receive support, both financially and through technical assistance, from private foundations and federal grant programs. We have seen encouraging outcomes in terms of the actual decline in the number of youth placed in facilities out of homes and youth arrests.

But there has been virtually no progress for the proportion of Black youth who still end up in out-of-home placements. The evidence is clear even amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. While some prisons and detention centers took steps to release children, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the institutions were releasing white children at a higher proportion than Black children. 

Black youth are met with a relentless impulse from system leaders to punish and criminalize, resulting in a consistent and profitable business model for youth detention facilities and for-profit companies that supply home supervision technologies. In states like New Jersey, the realities for Black children are dire — they are 20 times more likely than their white counterparts to be confined to correctional facilities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic this past summer, Grace, a 15 -year-old girl from Michigan, spent over a month in a detention facility for not completing online course work as part of a probation agreement from an arrest that should not have escalated to police involvement in the first place. Eventually a higher court overturned that decision, and Grace is home today. Given the fact that Black youth in Michigan are four times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, it’s easy to imagine this scenario playing out differently for a white family at every step of the process.

The reason Youth First stands firmly with the Black Lives Matter movement is because the disparity data tells us otherwise. We cannot proclaim progress in the juvenile justice reform efforts until we can claim progress for Black youth.

The new administration is our chance to make real change at the federal level, and it should prioritize investment in programs that protect our youth and help them succeed in their home communities, supporting their developmental needs and opportunities for growth and change. Most importantly, the administration must approach dismantling the juvenile justice system through a racial equity lens, taking into account and addressing the disparities against Black youth. Without this, more of our children will fall victim to a system that only harms, not helps. 

President Biden can make significant change by following through on his campaign promise to create a $100 million federal incentive grant program to accelerate youth prison closures. As part of this country’s reckoning with our racist history, the new administration must prioritize solutions for the most vulnerable children and there is no time to waste.

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As of January 8, at least 3,360 incarcerated youth have tested positive for COVID-19, and that is considering the limited testing occurring across the country. Action must be taken now – our children’s futures are at risk.

Carmen E. Daugherty
Common Dreams