LINCOLN — The pattern is clear, University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers say.
Black, Hispanic and Native American youths in Nebraska are more likely to be caught up in the justice system at nearly every turn.
Not only are they more likely to be arrested, they also are more likely to be prosecuted and sent to jail.
“People like to point fingers at the police department, but the disparities occur throughout the system,” said researcher Anne Hobbs, director of UNO’s Juvenile Justice Institute.
UNO was hired to conduct the federally mandated study on behalf of the Nebraska Crime Commission. At stake was more than $1 million in federal funding that helps pay for juvenile services in Nebraska.
The study examined cases from 2010 and 2011. Some of the findings:
» African-American, Native American and Hispanic youths are more likely to be taken into custody after being stopped by police for suspected law violations.
Black youths, for example, comprise 6.9 percent of the state’s population ages 10 to 17. But they comprise 26 percent of the youths who were arrested.
» Although 37 percent of youths stopped by police are black, Native American or Hispanic, only 28.7 percent of youths referred to pretrial diversion programs are members of minority groups.
» Black, Native American and Hispanic youths are more likely to face charges in adult court, rather than being transferred to juvenile court.
» And black and Native American youths were more likely to be sent to jail — 27 percent of Native American youths and 18 percent of black youths sentenced in adult court got jail time.
Only 11 percent of white youths and 12.5 percent of Hispanics youths got jail time.
The study cost $40,000, paid through a $200,000 federal grant for juvenile diversion programs.
Christopher Harris, coordinator of Nebraska’s Disproportionate Minority Contact program, said the findings are consistent with previous research.
The Crime Commission official said Nebraska law officers and the justice system have made tremendous strides in the past decade to reduce disparate treatment of minority youths.
“This is not finger-pointing. This is a positive piece of information to help us move forward,” Harris said of the study. “There’s a lot of good work being done. This report is just another step for Nebraska to move forward.”
The study notes that youths charged with multiple and more serious offenses are more likely to be prosecuted in adult court and sentenced to jail.
But Hobbs and co-author Elizabeth Neeley said their analysis showed that the seriousness of the offense does not explain why minority youths are disproportionately involved in the court system.
Lacking data, the study did not attempt to evaluate how socioeconomic factors or prior court records influence racial disparity, Hobbs said.
She hopes to study those issues soon and is working with law enforcement to analyze factors that influence how frequently police stop minority youths for questioning.
One solution would be for the juvenile justice system to adopt more objective criteria for when youths can be arrested and detained, and for when they are eligible for diversion and probation, said Neeley, who is director of the court system’s Nebraska Minority Justice Committee. More alternative services also would help, she said.
Neeley noted that minorities continue to be over-represented at the Douglas County Youth Center, despite alternative services that have significantly reduced its population.
“Developing those alternatives didn’t reduce the disparity — buts it did increase our confidence that we’re locking up the right kids,” she said.
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