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New research helps explain why more Black and Latino youth are arrested in Mass. than white youth

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New research offers more context for why Black and Latino youth in Massachusetts enter the justice system more often than white youth.

Although fewer young people overall are going into the justice system, that rate has been falling fastest for white youth. According to the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, police are three times as likely to arrest Black youth and twice as likely to arrest Hispanic youth.

"They might have shoplifted, they might have smoked marijuana, they might have driven their car way too fast down the road," lead researcher Melissa Threadgill said.

This is normal kid behavior, Threadgill said.

"But what happens sometimes is that we look at normal kid behavior for white youth and we say, 'Well, let's give them another chance,'" she said. "As a society, we seem to be less likely to do that for Black and Latino youth. We seem more likely to say, 'You need to be arrested for this. You need to go through the juvenile justice system.'"

Using 2021 data, the report found the biggest racial disparities happen when a young person is first suspected of delinquency — known as the "front door" of the justice system, when police have the most discretion.

Western Massachusetts counties fared slightly better than the state average, as far as racial inequities. But in Hampden County, Black youth are still 2.6 times more likely to be arrested than white youth, and Latino are 1.4 times more likely.

In many cases, charges are eventually dropped. But even brief involvement with the justice system can lead to long-term harm, Threadgill said, such as derailing educational or employment opportunities or creating mental health problems.

"If we see that Black and Latino youth are experiencing these harmful effects more often, that cries out for, what can we do to address the situation?" Threadgill said.

Researchers suggest that possible reasons for the disparities include different types of alleged offenses (i.e. Black and Latino may be suspected of more severe crimes), in addition to variation in police behavior and decision-making.

The report makes several recommendations, including: clearer and more standardized guidelines for police on when to make arrests or just give summons; better data collection so each police department can recognize disparities; and greater investment in community-based alternatives to juvenile detention (known as "diversion"), so that young people have a chance at rehabilitation and not just punishment.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.

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