Sunday Commentary: The Criminalization of Youth of Color



While the overall juvenile felony arrest rate declined by 65 percent between 1998 and 2014 in California, black “youth continue to be disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, both statewide and nationally.”

According to a report from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, “Black youth in California are arrested at a rate that is higher than expected, given their representation in the population. In 2014, Black youth accounted for nearly one-fourth of all juvenile felony arrests in the state, though they made up only 5% of the state’s child population.”

The report which was released this week, finds, “Between 1998-2014, California’s Black child population dropped by one-third. Yet during that same time period, the percentage of felony arrests involving this population grew by 18%. Arrest data for White and Latino children more closely mirror their proportion of the state’s population (arrest data for other demographic groups are not available at this time).”

In 2014, “Black youth in California had felony arrest rates that were more than four times that of Latino youth, and more than six times that of White youth. And that gap has widened over time. Specifically, 50 of every 1,000 Black youth were arrested for felonies in 1998, but that was only two times the rate of Latino youth, and three times the rate of White youth.”

There are far-reaching consequences for the criminalization of youth of color.

“Black children are dehumanized to such an extent that they aren’t perceived as children at all,” writes Margaret Kimberly in her article, “Police Target Black Children.” Citing a new report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ms. Kimberly says African-American children “are assumed to be older, less innocent and inherently guilty.”

The nation has focused on officer-involved killings, killings at the hands of the police. There has also been increased questioning of the veracity of tactics like stop-and-frisk.

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an associate professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY, and in a 2011 article spoke to this type of fear conditioning, noting the disparate impact of New York’s “Stop and Frisk.”

Professor Lewis-McCoy writes, “In 2009, of 576,394 stops and frisks [that] were performed . . . 84 percent of them were on Blacks and Latinos. This is astronomically high, given that Black and Latino compose roughly 26 and 27 percent of the population, respectively. The harassment that men of color often undergo via the police is a constant pressure. When walking through Harlem, I routinely see black boys approached by undercover officers and forced to submit to ‘random searches.'”

The professor continues, “These searches are anything but random and serve to make young boys and men feel unsafe in their own communities. In the same way that young men of color are subject to an ‘invisible force’ that disrupts their life without consent, young women of color feel the same. Somehow we live in communities where both men and women of color feel unsafe, displaced and harmed by harassment.”

Kai Wright, editor of the magazine Colorlines, said “that in the domain of law enforcement, African-American children are seen not only as threatening, but as ‘monsters.’”

The Packard Foundation writes, “Youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system tend to be at increased risk for substance use and dependency, dropping out of school, early pregnancy, and injury. Youth who have been detained have higher rates of attempted suicide and psychiatric disorders than youth in the general population.”

Research has identified a number of risk factors for juvenile crime, including, “A history of maltreatment, significant educational challenges, poverty, separation from family members, parental incarceration, exposure to violence in the home and community, mental illness, and substance use or dependency each are related to an increased likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system.”

The Packard Foundation notes, “Policymakers within the justice, social services, and education systems can play a role in improving the way society addresses juvenile crime. Steps should be taken to address the mental health needs of juvenile offenders by offering cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral programs, group counseling, mentoring, and assistance in graduating high school—all in a culturally congruent way (PDF). Furthermore, better policies can be implemented to decrease the likelihood of committing additional offenses, and to assist with rehabilitation and re-entry following release from detention.”

This is not just an issue for a far-off land. Research shows we do not have to look far to see the criminalization of youth here in Yolo County.

In Yolo County, there are also disproportionate impacts. According to a program of the Packard Foundation, in 2013, the youth arrest rate in California was 7.5 juveniles per 1000. However, in Yolo County that number is nearly 67 percent higher at 12.5 per 1000. That trend gibes with the overall prosecution scheme in Yolo County, where a county in the middle ranges in terms of crime overall has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the state.

However, a huge issue embedded within that statistic is the impact on youth of color. In Yolo County, the felony arrest rate for African-American juveniles is at a soaring 37.6 per 1000, down from a massive 60.8 per 1000 in 2011 but still well above the state average. Moreover, Hispanics in Yolo County have remained stable at 17.2 per 1000, which has largely held steady since 2011, and is more than twice the overall state average.

This will be the topic of conversation as the Vanguard commences its speaker series next Sunday, January 24, from 6 to 8 pm.

The Vanguard Court Watch presents a free community forum and discussion on the criminalization of youth of color.


Phil Barros – Department of Corrections, Retired
Natalya Edwards – Sacramento Office of Education, Adult Reentry Department
Joaquin Galvan – UCD Retention Coordinator and Counselor, Retired
Francisco Reveles, Professor, Sacramento State
Karen Soell – Yolo County Deputy Public Defender, Juvenile Cases

Sunday January 24 from 6 to 8
25 N. Cottonwood, Woodland
Gonzales Building, Room 167
Community Room

—David M. Greenwald reporting



About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: The Criminalization of Youth of Color”

  1. Davis Progressive

    the vanguard needs to really drill down on the numbers at the bottom – why is yolo county so much more harsh on youths.  this is not a small issue.  a felony conviction for a person under 18 hugely impacts quality of life.

  2. Miwok

    Sure would interest me WHY the culture is so different? Now, from my ignorant perspective, is it okay for the system to have programs for pregnant teens yet ignore the father of the baby? There is lots of emphasis on “woman power” and yet more people around a child to help, extended family, is not emphasized?

    Since many of the youth arrested are doing something that might get a warning if their parents would take care of the rest when the kid was returned home, we get a child arrested and sometimes released into parents’ custody where they are doing the same thing the kid was arrested for?

    Who works with parents of unruly kids? They are more culpable, and a week of watching daytime TV would give a clue.

  3. Tia Will


    a week of watching daytime TV would give a clue.”

    Perhaps if I had a week to watch daytime TV, I might know what you are talking about. As it is, I don’t. So would you mind explaining what you meant by this statement ?


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