Black teenagers in Massachusetts are four times more likely to be physically arrested than white teens who are also facing legal trouble, according to a new report released Tuesday by the state's Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board. Latino youth are almost three times more likely to experience that kind of arrest than white youth, in a state where 64% of all 12 to 17 year-olds are white. And these racial disparities prevail despite a 50% drop in overall applications for complaint since 2017.

The new report, which was mandated by a Massachusetts criminal justice reform bill passed in 2018, unveils significant disparities between races in the state’s juvenile justice system and makes recommendations for how to solve those issues.

In particular, the report focuses heavily on how Black and Latino teenagers end up in the state's juvenile justice system. Data from the report suggests that the racial disparities stem from biases right at the beginning of the process, even before the complaint against the juvenile is filed.

“The [racial] disparities are largest at the 'front door' of the system — the arrest and application for delinquency complaint stage,” the report said. “These early disparities matter.”

Between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, there were just over 6,000 "applications for complaint," which is when a police officer believes a youth has committed a delinquent offense and files the application with the Juvenile Court. This is the first step of the Juvenile Court delinquency process.

The 6,000 applications account for two different ways a youth can end up on the police officers’ radar. The first way is through “custodial arrest,” when youth are physically arrested. According to the report, more than 2,800 youths were brought into the juvenile justice system through custodial arrests in 2021. The second way is through summons, or a notice to appear in court, which brought in just over 3,200 youths in 2021. The board pulled Trial Court data, and it was analyzed by the Office of the Child Advocate for the report, showing that while Black youth made up only 19% of the applications for complaint, they made up 23% of the custodial arrests. White teens made up 41% of the total applications but only 35% of the arrests.

Advocates for juvenile justice reform argue that, in order to address racial disparities within the system, law enforcement should abide more strictly to a state law that urges discretion at this earliest point of contact.

Screenshot from Juvenile Justice report.png
A graphic from the report shows the different ways juveniles enter the Juvenile Court process, highlighting significant disparities in the use of custodial arrests for Black and Latino youth compared to white youth.
Courtesy of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board

“What we’re seeing is that Black kids are more likely to be arrested than issued a summons, despite the fact that the law prefers summons as a method,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which participated in the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board.

Being arrested can have a traumatizing impact on youth of color in particular, according to the report. “The harmful effects of placing youth in handcuffs, in a police cruiser and, oftentimes, in police lock-up have been well-documented,” said the report. “This has led to a push, both nationally and in Massachusetts, to, whenever possible, rely on a court summons as the preferred method of bringing youth to Juvenile Court for alleged delinquent offenses.”

Between 2017 and 2021, there was a 50% decline in applications for complaint, but no change in the ethnic and racial disparities of the youth that end up in the justice system. Along with the documented trauma, the report said youth who end up in the system have worse educational outcomes, limited employment opportunities, and a greater rate of recidivism as adults.

“The findings in the JJPAD report are troubling,” said Duci Goncalves, Deputy Chief Counsel of the CPCS Youth Advocacy Division and a member of the board.

“At a time where racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests should be declining to be on par with the reduction in juvenile delinquency complaints filed, the harsh reality is that they’re not,” she said.

The board looked at data on the severity of offenses to explore whether youth of color are often arrested for more serious crimes, which might explain the arrest disparities, according to Melissa Threadgill, director of strategic innovation at the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate. The office was part of the board overseeing the report.

What they found is that Black and Latino youth are slightly more likely to come to court on a felony charge than a misdemeanor, but the racial biases are still apparent.

“When you look at just misdemeanors, which are, by their nature, less serious, you [still] see significant disparities,” said Threadgill. “White youth who are accused of a misdemeanor come to court via an arrest rather than a court summons 18% of the time. For Latino youth, that happens 32% of the time, and for Black youth, 28% of the time.”

The report proposes a list of recommendations to local law enforcement and other agencies, including expanding diversion programs, bolstering data collection, and streamlining how summons are issued, and whether juveniles should be physically arrested.

“As an attorney for many years, I will tell you that you always want your kid walking in pursuant to a summons as opposed to coming up from the cell block, having been arrested,” said Smith.