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Tackling racial inequality in juvenile justice system

By Louis A. Trosch Jr.
Special to the Observer

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, children of color are overrepresented across all public-serving systems and face disparately negative outcomes. They are arrested, charged as delinquents, incarcerated, suspended from school, removed from their families and placed in foster care at significantly higher rates than white youth. These facts are mirrored in other communities across America.

Unlike many other communities however, leadership with juvenile justice, child welfare and education are acknowledging this state of affairs and taking steps to impact change through an initiative called Race Matters for Juvenile Justice (RMJJ). Working collaboratively, these systems are no longer pointing fingers at one another as the source of the problem but “owning” the problem and working collectively to solve it.

RMJJ originated in 2010 when the judges sitting on the juvenile court bench called a meeting of community stakeholders to discuss the overrepresentation of children of color in the courts. Efforts were quickly combined with law enforcement, child welfare and education to form a powerful coalition dedicated to creating a community where the composition and outcomes of juvenile courts cannot be predicted by race or ethnicity.

Through community forums, ongoing meetings and numerous workshops, the child-serving systems of Charlotte-Mecklenburg have come together with community advocates and leaders to formulate strategies to reduce the impact of both individual and institutional racism.

Today, we are pleased to report that leaders and citizens across our region are collectively forging a new path. We are educating ourselves about the historic causes of racial inequities, through a series of “Dismantling Racism” workshops. We are having courageous conversations that require introspection, responsiveness and trust about the influence bias has upon individuals and institutions. And, perhaps most importantly, we are implementing steps designed to level the playing field for children and families of all races.

By understanding the scope of the problem of racial inequities and disparity and its root causes, institutions have been empowered to take real action. The courts have implemented a bench card designed to mitigate both implicit and explicit bias in child abuse and neglect cases. These bench cards, developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, have been shown not just to reduce disparities, but to improve outcomes for all children. Similarly, many organizations have come together to analyze the school-to-prison pipeline and explore appropriate disciplinary alternatives across all systems. Improving outcomes for children of color through these initiatives also improves outcomes for all children.

Of course, RMJJ will not accomplish its mission easily or quickly. It will be a long journey that requires long-term commitment, and many partners. But we have started down the road. RMJJ offers great promise for both individual and collective understanding that young people are treated differently based on skin color. It empowers leaders of child-serving systems to recognize the statistics and outcomes for youth within their institutions and collaborate with others to make multi-systemic changes.

These changes are slow and incremental, but their promise and impact is clearly emerging. Race matters, but with the support of our community, we can begin to mitigate that impact on our next generation of citizens.

Louis A. Trosch Jr. is a Mecklenburg County district court judge. He writes on behalf of 16 members of the RMJJ effort.

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