For Safer Communities, We Must Start with a System that's Fair

April 9, 2014

As I write this, I've just left “Survivors Speak,” a conference in California that brought together hundreds of crime victims and survivors for the first time. It was a powerful, moving event. Conference attendees came from all over the state, yet they had many tragic stories in common: losing multiple family members to violence, long histories of sexual and domestic violence, being victims of sex trafficking or hate crimes. They were also predominantly people of color, from low-income communities.

The event was a testament to the devastating impact of crime (and the inadequate response of the justice system) on impoverished communities of color.  To my mind, it also reinforced the need for Congress to reauthorize and strengthen the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

As juvenile justice advocates already know, youth of color are disproportionately impacted at every stage of the juvenile justice system: they’re arrested more often and punished more severely than their white counterparts.  And we also know that incarcerating kids—or merely involving kids in the formal juvenile justice system—is ineffective and may even make them more likely to commit new crimes.

But that’s only half the story. Kids and adults of color are not only more likely to get in trouble with the law, they’re also more likely than their white counterparts to be victims and survivors of crime.

Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that over a six-month period, Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians were significantly more likely than whites to have been victims of violent crime;and a recent statewide survey in California found that Latinos and African Americans are “more likely than whites to have been victims of three or more crimes over a five-year period.”

Strengthening the JJDPA could help break the cycle of crime on both sides.

As we note in “A House Divided No More: Common Cause for Juvenile Justice Advocates, Victim Advocates, and Communities”—a new paper from my organization, the National Juvenile Justice Network – research shows that being victimized by violent crime makes kids more likely to commit new crimes.

One study of over 5,000 youth published by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that youth who were the victims of a violent offense were three times more likely to commit a violent offense in the next twelve months than those who were not.

To sum up: on the one hand, we have a disproportionate number of kids of color being caught up in a juvenile justice system that can make them more likely to commit new crimes. On the other hand, we have untold numbers of youth of color being victimized by violent crime at disproportionate rates in their own communities – which also makes them more likely to commit new crimes.

The JJDPA can’t fix this problem. But it can help.

Right now, the Act requires states to study and “address” disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in their juvenile justice systems.  But that vague requirement hasn’t yielded much progress

Much more could be done to set expectations for the Act’s DMC “core requirement” about what concrete steps states should take to achieve measurable reductions in racial and ethnic disparities. The Act might even take a more holistic approach and require collaborative work with other agencies to ensure that communities with the highest need for victims’ services and trauma care receive targeted attention.

Both steps would result in safer communities, especially in the areas hardest-hit by crime.


Benjamin Chambers has 14 years of experience in the field of juvenile justice, and is now the Communications Director for the National Juvenile Justice Network.

JJDPAmattersblogThis post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.


Benjamin Chambers