When Da’quon Beaver was 14, he was arrested for a robbery in Henrico County, Virginia. He says he was there but “didn’t participate,” but his judge decided he would be tried as an adult, enabling a much longer sentence.
“Given the stereotypes about a young black kid charged with a robbery, my [court-appointed] lawyer did not believe me when I said I did not do it,” said Beaver. The lawyer insisted he plead guilty to a gun charge, even though, he said, “I was confident my fingerprints wouldn’t be on it.”
Beaver was sentenced to 7 years in juvenile detention.
When Beaver was sentenced in 2005, he was almost five times more likely than a white youth to be incarcerated. While he was behind bars, that disparity widened: while juvenile incarceration dropped by almost half from 2003 to 2013, racial disparities increased over that same period, according to federal data.
In 2003, a black youth was 4.4 times more likely to be in secure confinement than a white youth; by 2010, that number had increased to 5.4 times. As of 2013, the ratio was five to one. Hispanic youth, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely as whites to land in jail, a ten percent increase over 2003.
The decline in incarceration rates appears to have two explanations. Juvenile crime has declined greatly since its heights in the 1990s, so fewer youth are potentially exposed to the juvenile justice system. But there is also great variation between states, largely accounted for by policy decisions, diverting more juvenile delinquents into community-based programs and residential confinement.
Joshua Rovner of the Sentencing Project said black and hispanic youth have not had the same access to those alternatives, so while their confinement rates have fallen, they have fallen less than for white youth.
As a Hispanic youth in New York state, Hernan Carvente was more than one-and-a-half times as likely to end up in secure confinement than a white peer, and he did. He grew up around violence; he said that by the time he was eight he was drinking his father’s beers at family parties so that his father couldn’t get drunk and abusive.
“Two days shy of my 16th birthday, I made the most irrational decision of my life by shooting a rival gang member three times with the intent of taking away his life,” he said.
He spent four months in a juvenile detention facility while awaiting trial, and then was sentenced to two to six years in a juvenile detention facility.
Carvente was sent to Brookwood Detention Center, over two hours north of New York City by car. His family came to visit regularly at first, but, he said, "the second year it got burdensome, because they had to pay for the buses."
Data collected by the Youth First Initiative, which advocates cutting youth incarceration in half by 2020, found that major juvenile facilities are often far away from major urban areas. For Carvente's family, buses were available, but in other parts of the country that means families have to rent cars.
Every state also permits courts to charge parents for the costs of incarcerating their children, according to a 2011 report by the National Center on Juvenile Justice. In 29, the costs were mandatory.
A report released by the Juvenile Law Center this summer found families in 31 states that had taken on debt to pay fees for their children's involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Education in youth prisons is often inadequate; while juvenile detention centers must provide schooling, only half of incarcerated youth surveyed in 2010 said they had access to good programs. A report by the Southern Education Foundation using federal data found that fewer than one in ten 16- to 21-year-olds in the juvenile justice system earned high school diplomas or GEDs. For Beaver, education access was good early on, with college credits and trades available, but after budget cuts, they “replaced the teachers with computers” and later had teachers come to their residential units, rather than have the inmates go to classrooms. “That was horrible,” he said.
And these difficulties are falling disproportionately on youth of color.
Once out of prison, Carvente found it very difficult to get a job with his juvenile record, and ended up working in juvenile justice advocacy after college. He described himself as a leader in his facility, who worked hard and had access to more resources than other youths. Despite that, said Carvente, he was denied 15 jobs when he got out.
“You get out and it’s like, good luck kid, it’s on you,” he said.