In Iowa, African American youths are 6.5 times more likely than white youths to enter the juvenile justice system with low-level offenses. They have an increased likelihood of detention for probation violations and are 9.8 times more likely to be waived to adult court. That report from the Division of Criminal Justice and Juvenile Planning should jar us out of our complacency to work toward changing the systems and attitudes that perpetuate disparities in treatment of our youths in Iowa and nationwide.
Three years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts” (https://tinyurl.com/ybdtj3a6), which called for a genuine conversion of heart that will “compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society.” Some parishes and groups in the Diocese of Davenport have organized book studies of the bishops’ letter, which is a good start to raising awareness. We need to couple awareness with action.
Leading the way in one small corner of Iowa is Davenport Bearing Witness, a grassroots organization that held a community event last week examining the short and long-term implications of youth detention. The Scott County Board of Supervisors’ plan to build a $17 million, 40-bed juvenile detention center with room to expand to 60 beds provided the impetus for the event. The board is looking to use $4.5 million of COVID-19 relief funds to help pay for it, according to news reports.
All three panelists at the event’s Oct. 29 lunch hour discussion agreed that construction of a new juvenile detention center is necessary, but two of the three adamantly object to the size. They say a 25-bed detention center is appropriate, and that the savings from a smaller-size center should go toward programs and services that help kids deal with their challenges outside of the juvenile justice system. Their recommendations are backed by studies showing how entrance into the juvenile justice system can have long-term repercussions affecting employment, family life and future involvement with the law.
“Be visionary, be bold … see if these things (wrap-around services and programs) work,” urged Marcy Mistrett, one of the panelists and director of youth justice for The Sentencing Project. Scott Hobart, a panelist and chief juvenile court officer for Iowa’s 7th Judicial District, agreed.
“We’ve got to engage families in positive, strength-based ways,” he said. However, he sees the need for the roomier, 40-bed juvenile detention center as a safe place to keep kids who are a danger to themselves and others.
Scott County works with other entities, including school districts, to help youths avoid criminal detention, but opponents of the larger-sized detention center say funding for programs and services is inadequate. Mike Guster, the third panelist and president of the Davenport NAACP #4019, said, “When it comes to Black kids vs. white kids, there are two types of criminal justice — white justice and Black justice. All we want is an equal playing field.” His assessment of the lived experience for Iowa’s Black youths is on target.
The Division of Criminal Justice and Juvenile Planning issued a report “showing disparities among youths within the juvenile justice system and made recommendations for systemic change,” according to the Justice Advisory Board (December 2020). The board, created by Iowa law in 2019, has made racial justice its first priority. “Racial justice refers to a justice system that is equitable, fair, and impartial at each decision point along the criminal justice continuum.”
Responsibility for achieving racial justice goes beyond the criminal justice system and the entities that feed into it. This work is our work, too, as followers of Christ who commands us to love God and love our neighbor, and as Iowa citizens. If we reflect honestly, we know that loving someone beside ourselves is challenging. It begins with examining our biases, learning to set them aside, and advocating for the good of the other through our legislative bodies, in our schools, work places, social institutions and houses of worship. Focusing specifically on reducing and eliminating the disparity between Black youths and white youths in the criminal justice system, we can begin by reading the Justice Advisory Board’s three-year plan (https://tinyurl.com/4tywjuds).
Some additional resources to consider:
• Iowa PBS Frontline: Prison State/School-to-Prison Pipeline (https://tinyurl.com/dheynrhp).
• Vox: Movies and shows about America’s justice system (https://tinyurl.com/3rn3pchy).
• Iowa Justice Action Network (https://iowajusticeactionnetwork.com/).
“Black kids are not inherently more violent, they are not inherently more delinquent, they are not inherently bigger risk takers,” Mistrett said. So why are we filtering so many Black children into the juvenile justice system? While pondering that question, consider a commentary by Father Rudolph Juarez, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, which appeared in the Oct. 27 Quad-City Times. “We need a smaller, 25-bed facility that reflects the smart use of Scott County taxpayer money, provides a more practical facility and takes into account the human resources necessary to provide intervention and prevention programs that offer direct services to families and young people on the edge of poverty and in crisis situations.”
Ask the Scott County Board of Supervisors (scottcountyiowa.gov/board) to support construction of a leaner juvenile justice center and a heavier approach to supporting programs and services that help youths and their families in their homes and communities.
Our efforts will help close the gap in juvenile justice and widen our hearts.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor