Despite law on racial disparities, black teens are overly tried as adults
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - Missouri has been prosecuting an increasingly disproportionate number of African-American juveniles in adult courts, despite an unusual state law that requires judges to consider racial disparity when deciding whether to transfer such cases.
In 2009, 64 percent of juveniles statewide prosecuted as adults were African Americans, nearly double the 2001 level of 36 percent. Black youth make up 15 percent of the state's population between 10 and 17 that falls under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts.
St. Louis has sent the largest number of black juveniles into regular courts, where the felony charges against them can lead to imprisonment with adults, followed by St. Louis County. Together, those two judicial circuits with the largest black populations account for almost 70 percent of the 485 cases sent to adult courts during those nine years. Jackson County, with a sizable black population in Kansas City, originated just 6 percent of the prosecutions.
Only a small fraction of the 40,000 offenses that juveniles are accused of committing each year in Missouri wind up being pursued in adult courts. A conviction in adult court, even in a plea bargain, can make it especially difficult for black juveniles, once released, to find a job for years into adulthood, studies have shown.
Missouri law permits the prosecution in adult court of any juvenile accused of a felony. Juvenile judges must hold a hearing on whether to transfer cases involving the most serious crimes, including murder, first-degree assault and drug dealing. Repeat felony offenders also face mandatory hearings.
Racial disparity has increased even as juvenile crime and the overall number of youth tried as adults each year has fallen considerably from a statewide peak in the mid-1990s.
"The numbers are disparate," says Gary Waint, research director at the Office of State Courts Administrator. "This is a serious issue. I think it needs to be discussed."
Reasons for the disparity
The reasons for the disparity are less certain. "I don't know if I have a complete answer to that question," says Waint, whose office collects statistics on juvenile courts, including transfers to adult courts.
Part of the answer appears to be more black juveniles have been charged with the most serious crimes. Waint cited combined figures from 2008 and 2009 showing that 15 African Americans were certified as adults on charges of killing someone, compared with four whites. The racial breakdowns for robbery, assault and weapons charges he provided were similarly lopsided.
That pattern does not, however, explain all of the disparity. In the adult prosecutions on other charges in those two years, blacks were defendants about half of the cases.
Waint says his office has not compiled figures by race on repeat felony offenders prosecuted in adult courts.
State law sets 10 standards for juvenile judges in deciding whether to transfer cases, including the threat to public safety, the viciousness of the crime and the personal harm done. The 10th standard is "racial disparity in certification" of youth for adult prosecution. Missouri may be the only state with that express criterion, according to Mae Quinn, a law professor at Washington University and co-director of a legal clinic that represents juveniles in St. Louis County.
Steve Gaw, a former state representative from Moberly, was one of the main sponsors of a 1995 youth crime bill that added racial disparity as a standard. He expressed dismay at the recent trend.
"The increase in the racial disparity of certifications is a red flag, which warrants investigation," Gaw said in an email. "It should not be assumed that the difference in the certification numbers [is] driven by prejudices of judges or prosecutors. There are many factors that could cause the difference, including such factors as the relative social, economic and educational opportunities for racial groups."
The judges who administer juvenile courts in St. Louis and St. Louis County pointed to the higher incidence of the most serious crimes among black juveniles, but more so to socio-economic circumstances, particularly poverty.
"The issue is why so many African-American kids are being accused of committing violent crime," says Judge Michael Burton of the county's court. "I truly believe it is an economic issue. ... There is a much higher percentage of African-American youth that are poor."
Judge Jimmie Edwards notes all of the adult prosecutions in the city's court during the last three years have been African Americans. "They have more to do with class than race. You have to consider class and race. Class is a factor," he says.
From 2001 to 2009, St. Louis certified 39 percent of the black juveniles prosecuted as adults statewide. St. Louis County accounted for 29 percent.
Although more African Americans live in the county than in the city, St. Louis had a higher percentage and larger number of black families living in poverty during the last decade, according to the 2000 Census. Their poverty rate in the city was 30 percent; the county's was half that. The city had 12,380 poor black families, and the county 7,807.
For the years 2001 to 2009, the period covered in the latest figures on adult certification of juveniles, the 2000 Census provides a better measure of poverty rates than the 2010 Census.
Jackson County model
Jackson County had a rate of 20 percent and nearly as many poor black families as St. Louis County. But the juvenile court in the Kansas City area has sent far fewer black juveniles for adult prosecution. From 2001 to 2005, the court certified as adults no youthful offenders of any race.
Judge Charles Atwell, who administered Jackson County's juvenile court until last year, says how that court functions makes the difference. "We really have a progressive family court system in Jackson County," he says.
Jackson County operates two juvenile detention centers, which Atwell says can rehabilitate young offenders before they get into so much trouble they are sent to state Division of Youth Services centers or adult courts.
"We have more stops on the road before you go to DYS or adult certification. That probably helps us in certifying fewer kids," he says.
St. Louis County runs a single detention center, Lakeside, in west county.
In Jackson County, Atwell also says juvenile court officers -- the equivalent of probation officers -- usually recommend against trying young offenders as adults.
State law ultimately gives the judge the final decision, and how that discretion is exercised is critical. "Judges have different philosophies," says Vivian Murphy, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, an advocacy group based in Jefferson City.
Edwards, who notes he is the only black juvenile judge in Missouri, says he applies strict standards that reserve adult prosecution for the most serious crimes.
"I don't consider certification unless there's a Class A felony, whereas in other jurisdictions it may be considered for a Class C or Class D felony," he says. Class C felonies include involuntary manslaughter and drug possession, while among Class D felonies are passing a bad check and drunk driving.
Edwards says he does consider racial disparity, but it would be "silly" not to certify serious black offenders because few white youth are charged with similar crimes in St. Louis.
Burton interprets the racial disparity standard as requiring him to treat equitably all juveniles who face the possibility of adult prosecution.
"The idea is not to treat someone more leniently or more heavily," he says. "If it is brought to my attention -- which it hasn't been -- where someone in exactly the same situation has been treated differently, and the only difference is race, I'd be very mindful of that."
On occasion, he adds, racial disparity is "a mitigating factor if it can be established a kid has had absolutely nothing."
The legislative intent
The legislature's intent in creating the standard, Gaw says, was to compel judges to consider how "human prejudices" may have figured in a case.
"Requiring judges to take into account racial disparity in decisions of certification was intended to force judges to think about the issue in making the decision, evaluating the factors that might have resulted in different treatment of the individual before them, and hopefully leading to more results where race was not a deciding factor in the certification decision," Gaw says.
Quinn, whose legal clinic defends mostly black juveniles in St. Louis County, argues the factors judges should consider include "race-based policing," which she says puts black teenagers under greater scrutiny than white youth. She contends judges should be mindful of the potential impact on racial disparity in that circuit's adult certifications.
"It doesn't say at (standard) number 10 'treat all kids alike.' It says consider the possibility that this will result in racial disparity," she says. "I think it's maybe an uncomfortable conversation -- and no one is saying people are motivated by racial animus."
For starters, Quinn says juvenile court officers should make a "more meaningful assessment" of racial disparity in their recommendations to judges at certification hearings. Those reports, she maintains, should go beyond a flat declaration that race was not a factor in a case and include racial breakdowns of arrests, certification hearings and approvals for adult prosecutions.
Whatever combination of factors are driving the increased racial disparity in prosecuting black juveniles as adults, Gaw and Quinn independently offer similar proposals for an official review to probe the causes and devise solutions.
"It warrants study to investigate the primary drivers impacting the result and the involvement of policy- and decision-makers to make recommendations to address it," Gaw says.
Quinn likewise calls for a task force of juvenile judges, prosecutors, defenders and other stakeholders to grapple with the racial disparity. "It doesn't seem previous efforts to address it have worked," she says.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He is a former staffer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis American.