The shooting of seven youths at Washington's National Zoo this week was met with terror in the nation's capital. And when a black youth, 16-year-old Antoine Jones, was arrested Tuesday for the shooting, there was little public opposition to the DA's decision to charge him as as an adult. But could such a move have been a racist act? Maybe. On Wednesday, researchers released the most comprehensive report ever to study racial disparities in punishing youth offenders, and its findings have opened lawmakers' eyes across the nation. The study, titled "And Justice for Some," was sponsored by a host of federal agencies, private foundations and think tanks, and found that minorities are treated more harshly at each level of the juvenile justice system more likely to be detained, prosecuted, incarcerated and tried as adults for all major types of crime than their white counterparts.
The report is particularly troubling because it seems to indicate that roadblocks are being thrown in the way of the juvenile justice system that are preventing it from meeting its major goal. Unlike the adult justice system, which has the simultaneous aims of punishing and rehabilitating convicted criminals, the juvenile system was established with the sole goal of rehabilitation. And it's no secret that incarceration particularly in the adult prison system is less likely to be rehabilitative than alternative punishments, such as drug treatment and group therapy. This study suggests that wayward minority youths, particularly African-Americans, are given less of a chance at rehabilitation than similarly situated whites.
Unlike many academic reports that make their way into the news, this effort seems to stand a good chance of having an immediate policy impact. Congress, which is gung-ho to adopt a get-tough attitude toward a perceived rise in juvenile crime, is currently considering legislation to make it easier for violent juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. At the same time that the report was released, leaders of such minority advocacy groups as the NAACP and the Urban League issued requests for Congress to both hold off on the legislation and free up to $100 million in funds for the Justice Department to crack down on discriminatory practices. And there's reason to think politicians will listen: After years of celebrating declining crime rates, the public is now asking why the U.S. prison population has just passed 2 million for the first time, and why America's police departments are rife with scandals. The new report only adds to the emerging sense that in delivering justice, the ends do not always justify the means.