By Frank Kineavy
Black and Hispanic minors in New Jersey are far more likely to be prosecuted as adults than those in other groups, according to a new analysis of court records by WNYC. Further, far more Black and Hispanic youths are given adult sentences or, in some cases, sent to adult prisons.
Over the past five years, state prosecutors were asked to try 1,251 minors as adults. According to the data, 87.6 percent of those minors were Black or Hispanic.
|Race||Number of Minors Requested to be Tried as Adults||Percent of Total|
Roughly half — 692 — of those requests were granted, and those minors were all tried as adults. Of those minors, 87.4 percent were Black or Hispanic.
|Race||Number of Minors Tried as Adults||Percent of Total|
According to the U.S. Census’ QuickFacts, New Jersey is 56.2 percent white, 14.8 percent Black, 19.7 percent Hispanic, 9.7 percent Asian, 2.1 percent two or more races and less than one percent American Indian and Native Hawaiian.
WNYC went through New Jersey prison records for everyone currently incarcerated who was a minor at the time they committed a crime and found:
“• At least 152 inmates are still in prison today for crimes they committed as kids in the past five years
• 93 percent of them are Black or Latino
• The most common crime they committed was robbery
• 20 percent of them have sentences of 10 or more years
• 2 are female inmates”
If a minor is convicted as an adult, they are subjected to adult sentences, which are longer than juvenile sentences. Adult sentences also give the minor a permanent record, rather than juvenile records that usually end up sealed. The minors are also sent to adult prisons. A minor is only tried as an adult if a prosecutor makes a special request, and then the judge either accepts or denies that request.
The study also showed that some county prosecutors are more likely than others to make special requests, and some counties are more likely to accept these requests for Black minors to be tried as adults compared to their white counterparts. Hunterdon County’s prosecutor has not requested to have a minor tried as an adult in the last five years, and their minor population is 80 percent white.
“Controlling for nature of offense, controlling for family background, controlling for educational history — all of the things that go into a prosecutor’s decision, there are still disparities, significant disparities, that cannot be explained by anything other than race,” says Laura Cohen, the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School.
The data from New Jersey matches up with trends nationally, as an estimated 60 percent of those under 18 serving life sentences without parole are Black.
Psychological research also supports these statistics. In 2014, the American Psychological Association published a study, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” The study concluded that Black children are less likely to be seen as children or “childlike” than white children:
“We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.”
According to the study’s authors, white children are more often perceived as innocent than Black children.
“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for Black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. “With the average age overestimation for Black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, Black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” noted author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, also from UCLA.
In March of 2016 New Jersey signed into law that minors who are tried as adults will no longer be sent directly to adult prisons until they are the appropriate age. However, this law is not retroactive, meaning minors already serving sentences in adult prisons will not be moved to a juvenile facility.