Getting Answers: youth racial disparities remain high in Mass. court system

New research shows that while fewer kids are getting involved in the juvenile justice system, racial disparities remain high in Massachusetts.
Published: Dec. 19, 2022 at 6:34 PM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - New research shows that while fewer kids are getting involved in the juvenile justice system, racial disparities remain high in Massachusetts, especially when it comes to how they’re ending up in court with Black youth far more likely to be arrested rather than issued a court summons.

“Not only the traumatic experience of being handcuffed, but your friends seeing it, your peers...that doesn’t leave you,” said Vilenti Tulloch, founder of Academic Leadership Association.

Tulloch runs a mentoring program in 11 schools in Springfield and Holyoke, empowering 200 at-risk students.

“A lot of middle school students have to deal with law enforcement in a negative way and there’s like, it doesn’t have to be that way, we can build relationships,” Tulloch added.

He said there’s a clear correlation between academic failure and involvement with the juvenile court system.

“Our students are more likely to receive police intervention in school, suspensions, three times more of Black and brown students, so I think it’s definitely, it’s a state of emergency, really,” Tulloch said.

New research finds racial disparities are greatest in how youth are coming to court. In Massachusetts, Black youth are more than four times as likely to be arrested, rather than given a court summons than their white counterparts.

“Think about a kid being put in handcuffs, put in the back of a police cruiser, being held in a locked facility, that can be really traumatic for youth and they can have long-term negative impacts on emotional, physical, and social outcome,” said Melissa Threadgill with the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate.

Threadgill said the law states a court summons is the preferred method for bringing youth to juvenile court and police in some counties do so more often than others.

“We see in some parts of the state, police officers are much more likely to use a court summons and, in some parts of the states, they’re more likely to use a physical arrest, and we certainly saw that in Hampden County,” Threadgill noted.

Of the kids entering the juvenile justice system in Hampden County this year, nearly 70 percent, or 557 youth, were arrested, while just around 30 percent, or 247 youth, were issued court summons. That surpasses other counties with high rates of youth of color. In Suffolk County, 66 percent were arrested, rather than summoned. In Worcester County, just 37 percent were arrested.

We checked in with local law enforcement and Springfield Police spokesperson Ryan Walsh told us:

“In 2022, juveniles are 25% more likely to receive a summons to court by the Springfield Police than be arrested. Of those arrested, the vast majority were for violent crimes which this year included charges of murder, rapes, arsons, shootings, serious assaults in addition to more than 20 juveniles arrested on firearms charges. In 2018 many laws involving juveniles changed in the Commonwealth and that has led to a significant reduction in the number of juveniles being arrested in our city.”

“Any contact with the juvenile justice system can lead to worse outcomes down the line, make an impact on educational outcomes. It can limit employment opportunities and it actually can increase the likelihood that a kid might get arrested again,” Threadgill added.

That’s where Tulloch’s mentoring program comes in. He said a positive relationship can change the course of a student’s life, along with recruiting more Black educators, building trust with law enforcement, and increased education of implicit bias.

“Before even leading into handcuffs, we have to do a better job as a community to not only support the student before it gets there, but when it does get there, how can we support them and de-escalate that,” Tulloch said.