Survey shows issues with race, juvenile justice

By Steve Korris | Jul 10, 2009

CHARLESTON – Workers in West Virginia courts and sheriff's offices might need to reform their attitudes about blacks to preserve full federal funding for juvenile justice, according to a survey.

Now state leaders who promised the U S. Department of Justice that they would train workers in cultural diversity in 2011 must figure out how to keep the promise.

The problem they face cropped up five years ago in a survey of 432 state court workers by researcher Stephen Haas.

Most workers zipped through the survey by answering "Never" to every statement, but different answers from other workers cast doubts on the denials.

Where Haas wrote that minority youth are referred to court more often than white youths for the same offense, three defense attorneys and two prosecutors reported that it always happens. Five defense attorneys, three judges, three prosecutors and two probation officers reported that it usually happens.

Fourteen defense attorneys, 11 judges, five prosecutors and three probation officers reported that it sometimes happens. Twenty-four judges, 17 probation officers, 14 prosecutors and eight defense attorneys reported that it seldom happens.

A statement that informal dispositions are more common for white youths than for minority youths drew similar responses.

Overall, 13 percent reported hearing racial slurs from other workers, and 18 percent reported hearing racial jokes. Almost a fourth of workers reported hearing slurs from public defenders, and more than a third reported hearing jokes from public defenders.

The survey accompanied a report Haas submitted to a Supreme Court of Appeals task force studying racial disparity in juvenile justice.

At the time, Haas worked at Marshall University in Huntington. He now works for the state Department of Justice Services in Charleston.

His report followed one from religious groups finding black youths about five times as likely as white youths to enter the juvenile justice system.

Some readers of the earlier report challenged it as simplistic, arguing that factors beyond court bias caused the disparity.

When Haas removed all other possible factors, he found a disparity ratio of 2.5.

"White and nonwhite youths are in fact dealt with very differently at each stage of the juvenile process," he wrote. "... race is a significant predictor of outcomes at multiple stages of the juvenile justice process.

"This conclusion remains true even after we control for significant differences between white and nonwhite youths in terms of the frequency and severity of prior offending and the seriousness of the current offense."

Though most workers in his survey saw no bias in informal dispositions, Haas found significantly fewer opportunities for nonwhites to complete informal supervision.

He found referral to community groups and the Department of Health and Human Resources significantly more likely for white youths than nonwhite youths.

He found white youths 54 percent less likely than nonwhite youths to receive a sentence or be transferred to adult court under the same conditions.

He recommended more research, but the task force never undertook more research.

The task force hasn't issued a report of its own, and last year it surrendered leadership to Louann Petts, the Supreme Court's disproportionate minority contact coordinator.

Petts led the preparation of a compliance plan that the state submitted to the Department of Justice in March.

The state risks losing 20 percent of federal funding for juvenile justice if it doesn't devise a remedy for disproportionate contact.

Under the plan, the Court would prepare a community forum and submit requests in December to appear before churches, professional conferences, service clubs and such.

The Court would request proposals next May for statewide assessment of mechanisms contributing to disproportionate contact.

The plan provides that, "Court personnel and law enforcement will be cognizant regarding diversity and cultural issues specific to West Virginia and will be well versed in appropriate strategies for intervening with diverse youth."

The plan calls for the Court to approve a training program in February 2011.

More News

The Record Network