A report released yesterday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore says that in New Jersey and Connecticut, eight times as many minority youths as white youths were in detention in 2006. The national ratio is 3 to 1.
"Racial disparity has been a longstanding issue in New Jersey," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Newark-based Association for Children of New Jersey, which is affiliated with the foundation.
In cities such as Trenton and Newark, police procedures, urban pressures and the lack of parental advocacy for children rob young offenders of chances to avoid detention, Zalkind said.
"When a kid gets in trouble in a small suburban community, the parents have more of a chance to work with the police on an alternative," she said. "There are more detention alternatives available for non-African-American kids."
The dramatic extremes between rich and poor in New Jersey, one of the nation's wealthiest states, accentuate the varying treatment of young offenders in different communities, she said.
At the same time, Zalkind said it was good news that the state, along with Vermont, has the nation's fourth-lowest rate of 10- to 15-year-old kids in custody.
But, a more profound problem is the racial bias in sentencing in communities. What Zalkind said is true, but when a kid in Newark is smoking marijuana he is considered on his way to criminal activity and a person who needs monitoring. But, when a kid from Livingston (in the same county) is caught smoking marijuana he is considered a young man getting a little crazy and more appropriate for his parents to handle it.
All the tools that seek to diminish the number of kids in detention (some are working) have reduced the number of kids by a third in detention since 2002. Yet, the racial gap continues and it begs the question are these tools helping black and Hispanic kids?
No one wants to talk about racism. We will talk about race and the racial gap in schools, in jails, in corporate america, but we leave the term racism out. What other explanation could there be for every one white kid in detention there are 8 black or hispanic kids? Notwithstanding black and hispanic kids make up about 30% of the kids in the state. It is time to do something; stop studying the problem and realize it is about bias.