Faculty Commentary

Unpacking the Race, Gender, Disability and Class Implications of Juvenile Detention Decisions

Race, gender, disability and class based injustices happen to our nation’s teens every day, in the mundane decisions that probation officers, caseworkers, and judges make, usually out of public view. An article in Pro Publica documents a judicial decision to detain a 15-year-old Black girl for violation of her probation. The violation involved her failure to properly attend her online school program and keep up with her assigned homework. The judge, citing a “zero tolerance” for probation violations, incarcerated her in May, 2020, in the midst of a massive disruption to the school lives of every American teenager. The decision was made without testimony by the girl’s special education teacher, who had to leave the online hearing to fulfill her other teaching duties.

Studies make clear the disproportionate impact of race in all aspects of the juvenile justice process. Those involved in the process tend to see Black teens as more mature and therefore more culpable for their behavior than white teens of the same age. Juvenile detention also disproportionately impacts teens diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities, and girls’ ADHD is often overlooked or discounted as it is commonly thought to affect only boys.

For a teen diagnosed with ADHD, online learning is likely to be especially ineffective. ADHD leads to impulsive behavior and impedes organization, focus, and learning without more structure and intensive teacher/student interactions to support the student. While upper income parents might have been able to privately purchase the specialized tutoring services that would have supported the girl’s continued learning and school performance during the pandemic, a child’s freedom should not be dependent on their parents’ ability to financially support such services.

This judge’s decision was made in contravention of the order by the Governor of Michigan to suspend the confinement of juveniles for probation violations unless the juvenile was a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.” The judge found that failure to do schoolwork posed such a risk, despite the fact that the girl had no other probation violations since her arrest for assault and theft six months earlier and no one had been harmed during her period of probation. The order gives no regard to the substantial trauma the girl was likely to experience to be separated from her mother and placed in congregate care, especially during a public health crisis.

Professor Laurence Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology at Temple, has provided strong evidence that teens are impulsive, responsive to immediate rewards rather than long-term consequences or risks. These issues are greatly exacerbated by ADHD. The girl’s story is emblematic of the experiences of so, so many children and youth with ADHD whose disability-related needs are not met. For Black children, their actions are often viewed as entirely intentional rather than disability-related, leading to excessively punitive responses. Advocates need to be vigilant that children and youth who end up involved with juvenile justice are treated fairly, that they are assessed holistically and with the true goal of juvenile justice, rehabilitation, strictly in mind. It is urgent that all those involved in juvenile justice are taught about the ways in which their own biases and lack of knowledge regarding race, gender and disability may affect their advocacy and decisions. And advocates need to be vigilant to bring to light the mundane, every-day decisions that so impact the lives of vulnerable teens.

Questions about this post? Drop us a line at lawcomm@temple.edu.