“The Color of Justice”

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By Carly Maher

June 2nd in Enfield, CT is the last chance to attend a screening and discussion of The Color of Justice, a brief documentary which has served as an immensely effective tool in race and juvenile justice forums across the state of Connecticut for the past two years. The 2013 film is a conversation starter, created by CPTV and utilized by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA), that presents data and interviews regarding racial bias and its relation to criminality in young people for the purpose of highlighting ethnic disparities, progress made, and future intervention.

The documentary utilizes statistic correlations between race and frequency of arrests that many may find surprising. It is vital to debunk the myth that because black youth are overrepresented in prison and juvenile correction programs, it means black youth commit more crimes than youth of any other race. Statistically, youth of all races commit the same crimes at the same frequency and at the same level of severity. The two most prominent areas of focus examined in response to disproportionate minority contact (DMC) are implicit bias and mental health stigmas.

It is widely understood that a young person’s initial interaction with law enforcement officers sets the tone for the future on a micro and eventually a macro level. A large portion of the film features police officers interacting with youth and attending trainings exploring bias. In general, the trainings seemed to reflect implicit bias based on clothing style and facial expressions rather than race. However, in these situations, police officers were not physically confronted with kids. They were instead shown photos and asked to describe the person in question. This artificial representation of implicit bias may contribute to the overrepresentation of youth of color in correctional environments that parallels the underrepresentation of youth of color in mental health programs and facilities.

Much of the treatment of youth by police (regardless of race) can be explained by certain policies held by individual police departments. For example, if a young person has the opportunity to be removed from the police station by a parent or guardian but they are from a single parent household and their guardian is unavailable, this can change the course of future events for that child. Many young people fall into a perpetual cycle of arrests because of inability to comply with police protocol. “It’s not a true systemic bias, a lot of the time it’s the policies built into these police departments or schools which negatively impact kids who are coming from single parent families. Sometimes it happens to be more youth of color,” says Mallory LaPierre, Policy Associate for the CTJJA. As the subject of police policies regarding young people have been researched and brought to light, the number of juveniles of all races referred to court in Connecticut has declined 27% since 2007.

In the film, questions are raised regarding disparities between the overall treatment of white youth and youth of color once they are within the justice system. In regards to youth of color, Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee member Christine Rapillo says, “Why do they get held in detention longer? Why are they more likely to end up at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School instead of a more therapeutic setting? What we’re looking at is how the system is treating the kids and whether they’re being treated differently at any point based on their race.”

“Putting youth of color in prison programs rather than psychiatric support settings exacerbates their emotional and mental disturbances and instabilities,” says LaPierre. The film reveals that part of Connecticut criminal justice culture involves white youth getting a slap on the wrist and mental disorder diagnoses. Meanwhile, youth of color are more likely to be branded with a conduct disorder (meaning they are more likely to be labeled as aggressive rather than ill). From there, many are referred to adult court or sent to a detention facility – often with longer stays than white youth.

According to the film, data collection is difficult but vital. Connecticut has made nationally recognized strides in collecting DMC data in pursuit of social reform. Despite this, data collection is ongoing and much more needs to be covered in terms of psychology versus criminalization. According to LaPierre, “The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee is looking at that overlap of juvenile justice and mental health treatment.”

The film claims throughout that it is ineffective to “ignore” race. Social psychologist Dr. Jack Glaser makes frequent appearances and elaborates on the concept of socially stigmatizing others and humans’ natural prejudices. It is not the natural stereotyping all people do that is inherently bad. It is the negative behavior that results from these misconceptions, especially by people in power, that criminal justice advocates are seeking to change. In the closing minutes of The Color of Justice, Dr. Glaser makes a resounding assertion about youth treatment and bias: “Whether or not stereotypes are accurate is irrelevant, unless they’re a perfect predictor – and none of them are.”

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