Black youth far more likely to get arrested, figures show


Published: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 5:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 5:47 p.m.

A disproportionate number of black children are arrested in Gainesville.

A disproportionate number of arrested black children are transferred to adult court.

Data show these and other disparities between the processing of black and white youth through the judicial system. The task of a new two-year, grant-funded study by the Gainesville Police Department is to figure out why and to develop ways to bring equality to the process.

GPD Chief Tony Jones said the disparities affect not only the lives of the kids, but the entire community.

"It is going to impact their employment. If they may not be able to get jobs, they will create things to do, and some of those things can be illegal. So it's crime prevention. It's quality of life in the community," Jones said. "There is a disproportionate number of individuals that are being charged when you look at the overall representation. We got this grant to look at the causative factors and what to do to address the issues."

GPD has gotten grants of $25,000 for each of the next two years and has contracted with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy to oversee a process that will include a review of data, policies and procedures, practices and other actions centered on the handling of juveniles who commit crime.

The process will involve GPD, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, the school district, the state Probation and Parole office, the offices of the state attorney and public defender, and others.

Two staffers from the Center for Children's Law and Policy, Tiana Davis and Lisa Macaluso, will be leading the process. They were in Gainesville earlier this week and said they will be visiting often.

"The work we do is essentially system reform work. We want to work with the key leaders to do a critical self-analysis of the way the juvenile justice system works now and, based on that, to look at the low-lying fruit where, with a small change here to there, we might be able to make a pretty big impact," Macaluso said. "Primarily the work is focused on police and practice change. Sometimes it is also focused on looking at the programs that exist now and making sure they are serving the kids."

Data show that 54 percent of the county juveniles who are at risk of getting into trouble are white, 31 percent are black and 8 percent are Hispanic. The remaining percentage is classified as "other."

However, 67 percent of those at-risk kids who end up in the judicial system are black.

Of those who end up in the system, the percentage of cases resolved without arrest is higher for whites. A higher percentage of blacks are detained, committed and transferred to adult court.

The goal of the study is to examine data, along with the ways kids end up in the judicial system, to figure out why the disproportion exists and find ways to ensure that all cases are handled consistently regardless of race or ethnicity.

Davis and Macaluso said the situation here is common across the country. The center has worked on similar projects in cities in Maryland, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Washington state and Pennsylvania.

Davis said each city will have its unique nuances but added ambiguous policies are commonly found.

"That creates opportunities for variances in how the system responds to certain youth," Davis said. "One of the things we like to do is work with jurisdictions to find out where some of those areas are where there might be discretion in decision-making so we can place structure around those processes to make sure decisions are made consistently and fairly."

GPD data show that juvenile arrests dipped in 2012 to 815 compared to 924 in 2011 and 920 in 2010. Most of those arrested are 16- and 17-year-olds. Over three years, about 75 percent of those arrested are black.

By far the leading offense is shoplifting. Violation of probation and simple battery follow.

GPD Lt. Will Halvosa said the drop in 2012 stemmed in part from new initiatives.

The department, for instance, had more officers at The Oaks Mall during the summer and the Christmas season. That resulted in fewer arrests for shoplifting.

GPD is considering other measures to reduce juvenile crime, Halvosa added.

"We saw a significant reduction in the amount of juveniles we arrested for retail theft, and that's what seems to drive most of our numbers," Halvosa said. "It looks like across the board, all of the categories were reduced. I'd like to attribute it to all of our hard work and all of our initiatives."

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