Justice for Juveniles

In December 2014, the Pima County Juvenile Court analyzed the disproportionate contact that youth of color had with the Pima County justice system from 2009 to 2013. One of the things the Court studied were petition rates, which are the rates at which the Pima County Attorney files criminal charges against juvenile offenders. What is unique about petition rates is that deciding which child to charge with which crime is independent from deciding which children are arrested and detained. The County Attorney alone decides who to file criminal petitions against, and the County Attorney alone decides which petitions to dismiss, which to plead out, and which to take to trial. Like our county and state adult incarceration rates, Pima County juvenile petitions rates have been plagued by racial disparities, made are all the more egregious considering that criminal petitions negatively impact children for the rest of their lives.

In 2004, and from 2011- 2013, Native American youth had the highest petition rates of any group, while Caucasian youth had the lowest rate. Petition rates for youth of color were consistently greater than rates for Caucasian youth, ranging from a maximum of 1.4 times greater (African-American youth in 2010) to slightly more than 1.0 times greater (Hispanic youth in 2011). And during every year from 2009 – 2013 there was a statistically significant difference between petition rates for African-American youth and Caucasian youth.

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The 5 year Juvenile Court study also looked at diversion rates, and discovered some equally troubling anomalies. Diversion is a program which allows juvenile offenders to pay fines and engage in community service and rehabilitation programs in lieu of incarceration. It is controlled and administered in its entirety by the Pima County Attorney. If a juvenile successfully completes diversion their case is dismissed, and their record does not show any criminal conviction. From 2009 to 2013, diversion rates for African-American youth were the lowest of any group (except for 2009), and decreased every year except for 2012. From 2010 to 2013 the ratio between the diversion rate for African-American youth and Caucasian youth decreased each year but one, meaning that African-American youth were less and less likely to be allowed to enter diversion than Caucasian youth. In 2013 there was a statistically significant difference between diversion rates for bothAfrican-American youth and Hispanic youth, as compared to the rate for Caucasian youth.

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It is important to repeat that these disturbing facts cannot be attributed to police, parents, or school officials. Which children to prosecute, and which children are offered diversion are decisions that rest solely with the Pima County Attorney. They must reform their procedures and take a good, hard look at which children they are prosecuting, and how they are encouraging our kids to lead promising and productive lives. The Pima County Attorney may want to start this process by not handing out fliers like the one below, which was distributed by the County Attorney to the parents of schoolchildren enrolled in the Tucson Unified School District in the Fall of 2015.

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Flyer handed out to parents at TUSD new student night 2015 by the Pima County Attorney’s Office