Civil Rights Groups Call for Changes to Juvenile Justice Bill to Prevent Bias

May 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, May 18, 1999

WASHINGTON — Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) today introduced an amendment to the juvenile justice bill to ensure that it does not aggravate the already unfair treatment received by minority youth at every level of the justice system. The move was heralded by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups.

“All youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system should be treated appropriately – and fairly,” said Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “At least 40 states are currently developing plans to address how their justice systems unfairly treat minority youth. Without this amendment, the bill before the Senate would wipe out all of that progress.”

Hard evidence from around the country clearly demonstrates that minority youth consistently receive more severe punishments and are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than non-minority youth who commit the same offense.

Statistics from the Department of Justice show indicate that the percentage of minority youth in secure confinement is more than double their representation in the general juvenile population.

The Senate continued voting today on S. 254, the so-called Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999. In addition to its shortcomings on treatment of minority youth, the bill would open juvenile proceedings and records to employers and schools, effectively cutting off avenues to rehabilitation.

The Wellstone-Kennedy amendment would uphold the spirit of current law, requiring states to take steps to reduce the disproportionate number of children of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

“It would be easy to simply assume that the large discrepancy in minority youth incarceration is due to young people of different racial groups committing different kinds of crimes,” said Rachel King, ACLU legislative counsel. “However, federal and state data show this is simply not true.”

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