Our Drum Major for Justice Beats On Through His Legacy
By Marcy Mistrett, CEO
In the five decades since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, U.S. families, advocates, and youth continue his legacy for justice, specifically targeting criminal justice reform.
In 1968, when the world lost a visionary for racial justice and civil rights, our criminal justice system was not the most punitive, extreme system it was today that houses 20 percent of the world's incarcerated population despite being 5 percent of the world’s total population. In fact, the call in the 1970’s was for rehabilitation, and there were 161 U.S. residents incarcerated in prisons and jails per every 100,000 of the U.S. population (a rate that is nearly quadrupled today). In 1981, the average length of time spent incarcerated for murder was 5 years and 3.4 years for sexual assault.
At the same time, the youth justice system was going through major reforms—extending due process rights to youth, placing limits on the transfer of youth into the adult system, and passing the first federal law that protected youth in custody, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) . Also by 1980, the JJDPA included a requirement that states collect data on the disparate rates of confinement for white and minority youth, referred to as disproportionate minority confinement. Racial disparities in the U.S. penal system had been evident from the 1940’s, but grew three-fold between 1970-1980, before doubling again in 1990 (page 58).
Fifty years later, while progress has been made, the U.S. still has a far way to go on its march for youth and racial justice. Just last month, Stanford University published a study that looked at the economic outcomes for wealthy African American youth—finding that black men raised in homes of millionaire fathers are as likely to be incarcerated than white men whose household income is $36,000 a year. This is an alarming finding that shows the continued legacy of racism (not class) and its harsh impact on black men and families.
One place to look for the growing disparities in the way we treat children of color is to review the data on children in adult jails and prisons. Again, in the 1970’s, only eight states had transfer provisions that automatically excluded youth from the youth justice system because of their age and alleged offense; today there are 28. This has been a shift that has born heavily on young people of color. But this result is not exclusive to automatic transfer practices; in cases that are judicially waived, 2014 brought the worst year of racial disproportionality in nearly 30 years of data collection. In 2014, black youth were 52.5 percent of the youth judicially waived to the adult system, even though they comprised only 35.9 percent of the delinquency cases, and 14 percent of the youth population.
This is particularly alarming as significant reforms are being advanced. While the U.S. has dropped youth incarceration for delinquent youth by more than 50 percent; the ratio of youth in adult jails has increased from 1:10 of every youth in out of home placements; to 1:7. This is an injustice that can not continue.
Perhaps most upsetting, is to return to Memphis, TN in Shelby County where Dr. King lost his life half a century ago. Last year, there were 92 youth transferred to the adult court in Shelby County; 87 percent of them were black. Today, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, two black girls are being housed in an adult women’s prison pre-trial despite the fact that there is space for these girls in the local youth detention center. Our over-reliance on harsh punishments for children, is leading to young girls in Shelby County being placed in facilities designed for adult women. As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, I urge us all to bring out our drums, and beat loudly to the words of his nine-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, “I have a dream that enough is enough.”