Despite a law designed to prevent juveniles from unfairly being tried as adults, young Black people still get the grown-up treatment more than their peers.
Missouri is a forward-thinking enough state that it’s put into law a requirement that says all judges must consider “racial disparities” when deciding whether to try a minor as an adult. The racial consideration is one of 10 considerations to be made—others include threat to public safety and the brutality of the crime—and it’s the only law of its kind in the United States. One other thing: It’s not working.
According to a new inquiry into Missouri’s criminal justice data, even with a law in place designed to mitigate trial bias, African-American youth offenders are still being tried as adults at disproportionate rates. In 2009, for instance, 64 percent of Missouri young people tried as adults were Black, which was nearly double the 2001 level, 36 percent. For context, African-American juveniles make up only 15 percent of the state’s population.
Exacerbating these numbers even more is that Black young people are being tried more often as adults despite the fact that juvenile crime rates are declining.
If convicted as an adult, a young person might be imprisoned with dangerous criminals twice their age. What’s more, while youths can have their records expunged, being tried and convicted as an adult will have horrible consequences on the juvenile’s ability to attain work and an education for years into the future.
Probably most troubling about this disparity is that researchers and others in criminal justice don’t know why it exists. "The issue is why so many African-American kids are being accused of committing violent crime," Judge Michael Burton, who works on the St. Louis County court, told the St. Louis Beacon. "I truly believe it is an economic issue. ... There is a much higher percentage of African-American youth that are poor.”
I’d posit something else all together. While it is a fact that African-Americans are disproportionately poor, that doesn’t go all the way toward explaining why judges see them differently when making decisions about who gets tried as an adult. The problem is that judges are human beings, and all human beings are inherently prejudiced in certain ways. It would seem that some Missouri judges are flawed with racial bias, a racial bias that can’t be regulated away with laws. So, while Missouri’s step toward trying to eliminate racial bias in courts is a progressive one, judges need to take it upon themselves to recognize their biases and move past them for the common good.
(Photo: Commercial Appeal/Landov)