African Americans make up about a third of Cuyahoga County's youth population. But according to statistics from the Ohio Department of Youth Services, in recent years African Americans have accounted for nearly 75% of the youth committed to O.D.Y.S. facilities. A new Case Western Reserve Unversity Study examines this disparity, and as 90.3 WCPN's Renita Jablonski reports, local leaders agree that this trend will only continue to grow more severe unless investments are made to strengthen communities.
Renita Jablonski: Case Western Reserve University Professor Bill Sabol is the author of a newly released study that examined the outcomes of almost 40,000 juvenile deliquency cases in Cuyahoga County between 1997 and 1999.
Bill Sabol: In a nutshell what I found was after applying statistical methods and controlling for differences in things like the number of charges, sort of like juvenile criminal history, statistically similar youth received roughly equivalent outcomes and so what that implies is that one of the main reasons for the disparity at the end of the juvenile justice process is the composition of cases that come into the court.
RJ: Sabol found that black youths are nearly four times as likely to have their cases go into the juvenile justice system than their white counterparts. He says while this particular report did not examine what causes that gap in court referrals, there's plenty of evidence that points to the socio-economic makeup of a community.
BS: From other work that I did, I found that there's a very strong correlation between the economic conditions in the communities in Cuyahoga County and the number of kids that are referred to the court. So, in that case it doesn't matter a whole lot about whether or not the kid is white or black, one of the major factors in determining whether the kid goes to the court are again, these economic, social-structural factors.
RJ: Cleveland City Councilman Zach Reed says he sees this correlation almost daily in his Ward. The Mount Pleasant neighborhood has one of the highest crime rates in the city - and it also happens to be one of the poorest. But Reed says poverty is only part of the problem and suggests that a lack of family structure and community involvement may be even more to blame.
Zach Reed: And I say that because, I can say it first-hand because I was reared with a single parent mom. She raised three boys on her own. None of us got in trouble, but the enviroment that we were in, living off of Kinsman on 139th and Kinsman, we had after-school programs, we had recreation at our schools, we had great neighborhood involvement with young people in our street, we had that extended family.
RJ: While this reasoning seems to make sense, there's another part of Bill Sabol's study that raises some different questions. When it comes to drug offenses, the numbers show black youth are more than two times as likely to be charged with a felony than white youth brought in on drug-related activities. Reed says it's statistics like these that prompt him to think that policing methods need to be re-examined.
ZR: We know they're selling drugs in certain areas of this city so we go there to where they're selling drugs but they sell drugs throughout this entire county. So they go to those areas where they know that the crime exists, that's one of the problems. That's why you look at them saying, well we went here, well if you go to another location that's non-minority, you're going to find the same exact thing.
RJ: An advisory council made up of Cuyahoga County Commisioners and the Juvenile Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas has been analyzing dispproportionate minority confiment of youth for the last few years. The group has developed a Comprehensive Strategy for Delinquency Prenvention and Juvenile Justice that includes measures to help combat the issue. Commissioner Tim McCormack says while the statistics are very similar to those found throughout the country, the situation in northeast Ohio, specifically Cleveland, is in some ways worse.
Tim McCormack: Someday, and hopefully very soon, this community is going to come to understand that the most important undertaking in Cleveland must be a recognition of how poorly children in the inner-city are doing. Nearly seven out of 10 children never graduated from high school. Nearly seven out of 10 children came from a single mother household only.
RJ: McCormack says implementation of a plan to help decrease the racial disparity in juvenile cases is set to begin soon.
TM: The Strategic Plan is intended to immediately, meaning starting later this spring and summer, go to every city in Cuyahoga County, the police departments and the school systems, with a model plan for child well-being to try and raise an awareness throughout the county about a higher standard of child safety and child achievement.
RJ: McCormack says another part of the effort includes building a new youth intervention center in the Fairfax neighborhood to replace the current juvenile detention center. Commissioners approved the deal in 2000 and McCormack says they expect to finally break ground on the $50 million project later this year. Both McCormack and Reed agree that while the Comprehensive Strategy has started to address the high level of minority youth in the juvenile court system there will not be a significant reduction of such cases without a region-wide campaign of public-private partnerships to help build social capital and revive disadvantaged communities. In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3 WCPN News.