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Report: Racial Disparities In Allegheny County Juvenile Justice System Outpace Rest Of Nation

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
The North Side-based Gwen’s Girls offers services to prevent girls from entering the juvenile justice system. In 2016, the group's CEO, Kathi Elliot, helped to form the Black Girls Equity Alliance, whose new report details racial imbalances in the system.";

Black girls in Allegheny County were 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be involved in the juvenile justice system last year, according to a study released Monday. The county’s Black boys, meanwhile, were seven times more likely than local white boys to end up in the system, the research shows.

The report was a project by a group of law-enforcement organizations, researchers and advocacy groups. And it found that local racial gaps are far wider than the disparity recorded on the national level, where Black youth are three times more likely than white youth to be accused of delinquency. The paper notes, too, that white children in the county are less likely than white children nationally to find themselves in the system.

“The criminalization of Black youth that our report documents is a manifestation of systemic racism that must be addressed at the system level,” said Sara Goodkind, a University of Pittsburgh social work professor who helped to lead the research.

“Too often," Goodkind continued, “we try to reduce referrals [of children] to juvenile justice with programs aimed at fixing youth, when what we need to do is fix our systems.” Referrals are delinquency allegations that authorities send to the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Office, which then decides whether to turn the case over to the local juvenile court or divert it out of the system.

Goodkind noted that a 2014 survey indicated that the racial differences “cannot be explained by differences in behaviors.” For example, she said, “Black and white girls in Allegheny County have nearly identical rates of drug use.”

And the professor added, “That our rates of juvenile justice referrals for white youth in our county are lower than national rates tells us that we know how to avoid referring youth to juvenile justice.”

Goodkind completed the research in collaboration with local agencies, including the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Office, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Those agencies — along with foundations, academics,  and advocacy groups including the ACLU — are part of a coalition called the Black Girls Equity Alliance. The group has documented racial imbalances in the county’s juvenile justice system for several years. Their research shows that for girls, who are accused of fewer infractions overall than boys, the disparity has barely budged.

Drawing on data covering 15 years, the report finds that although dramatic racial gaps persist in the county’s juvenile justice system, the overall rate at which children interact with the system has fallen by half.

The report highlights Pittsburgh Public Schools police officers as the largest source of referrals to the juvenile justice system for Black girls in 2019. PPS officers made one-third of referrals of local Black girls, compared to 9 percent of referrals of white girls, the new study says. It found that for Black boys, a fifth of referrals in 2019 came from PPS officers, compared to 5 percent for white boys.

Pittsburgh police officers were responsible for another fifth of referrals of Black boys. City police accounted for notably higher percentages of allegations for both Black boys and girls than for their white counterparts.

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet pledged to partner with the Black Girls Equity Alliance “to continue our work to reduce the disproportionate rate of discipline affecting Black children.” But at a news conference the alliance hosted Monday, he defended his record by saying that suspensions and arrests have declined under his watch.

Hamlet’s participation in Monday’s news conference was notable, considering that a leader of the alliance, Gwen’s Girls CEO Kathi Elliot, recently called for a change in district leadership. On Monday, however, Elliot, whose organization serves at-risk girls, said, “We need to continue to talk to one another to come up with … viable solutions to address this disproportionate referral rate to the juvenile justice system.

Among Black students arrested by PPS police last year, about half were charged with disorderly conduct, according to the report. During the same period, the study adds, school police were responsible for all arrests of Black girls who reside in Pittsburgh and were charged only with disorderly conduct.

The same offense was also most commonly listed in summary citations issued to minors in Pittsburgh between 2016 and 2019, the report notes. The citations are similar to traffic tickets and require recipients to appear before a lower court judge, who usually orders them to pay a fine.

Monday’s study criticizes that punishment as being too harsh for offenses such as disorderly conduct, which the paper describes as “a ‘catch-all’ charge that includes things like excessive noise, obscene gestures or language, or other typical teenage behaviors.”

Disorderly conduct, the report adds, is so “broad and vague” that “research has shown it has been used in arbitrary and discriminatory ways largely against Black students and has contributed to racial disparities in student removals from schools.”

And court fines, the report adds, disproportionately harm Black children, who “are 10 times more likely than white youth to be referred to juvenile court for failure to pay a fine resulting from a summary citation.”

“We are punishing poverty – the very poverty that often stems from the systemic racism that led to police involvement in the first place – when people who can afford their fines are not experiencing these same consequences,” the report says of the trend.

Although summary offenses are considered low-level crimes, they “can have long-term consequences for youth,” said Ghadah Makoshi, a community advocate for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Makoshi noted that the offenses are considered adult-level crimes. And young people cannot clear them from their record until six months after they turn 18 – a rule that Makoshi said jeopardizes their ability to be accepted into college, enlist in the military, or get a job.

The study’s authors recommend that schools remove disorderly conduct as an infraction in their codes of conduct. And they urge lower courts to stop sending children to juvenile court when they do not pay fines.

The report also calls for the elimination of school police, while encouraging law-enforcement agencies and courts to develop “pre-arrest diversion” methods to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system. A diversion program in Philadelphia has helped that city’s public schools to bring their student arrest rate down to eight times lower than PPS’ arrest rate, according to Monday’s study.

While Monday’s report focuses on PPS, Elliot said the Black Girls Equity Alliance is a “countywide effort.” “We want to work specifically with Pittsburgh Public to establish some protocols and some practices so that that can be replicated in other school districts as a model,” Elliot said. She praised the Woodland Hills School District, however, for progress it has made in the last two years to reduce its reliance on campus police and to steer students away from the juvenile justice system.

The Black Girls Equity Alliance plans to hold an “emergency town hall” meeting Thursday afternoon to review its new research and determine how to respond. Participants will include Hamlet as well as representatives of the county’s juvenile court and juvenile probation office, among other organizations.

“We can sit here and have these recommendations all day," Elliot said. But the effort would fall short, she added, "if we don’t have the leadership … to step up and to look at implementing some of these changes."