At almost every decision point in the US justice system, disparities of gender, race, and ethnicity can be observed. Even in the juvenile justice system, which is meant to be rehabilitative, black youth are locked up at almost five times the rate of white youth for the same crimes. It is also estimated that as many as 39% of incarcerated girls may identify as LGBTQ. Upstream in the justice decision-making process, black youth are far more likely to be arrested and charged compared with white youth, and white youth are more likely to be offered diversion (an intervention or alternative to incarceration) programs. Sadly, Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts (JDTCs) are no different, a 2016 study found that minority youth are underrepresented in JDTCs, and even if they are offered the opportunity to participate, minority youth have a lower rate of graduating JDTCs than white youth.
Of all the interventions in juvenile justice, JDTCs, with their explicit dedication to individualized case planning, engaging the participant’s family and community, and individualization of programming and responses to behavior, should, in theory, be equipped to support all youth in their access to, and graduation from, their programs. But, despite the incredible potential in the JDTC model, and the deeply committed and caring staff who work in JDTCs nationally, something isn’t quite working for all the young people they serve.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would like to offer one suggestion. We must avoid falling into the trap of treating everyone equally, rather we must ensure we are treating everyone equitably. Equitable treatment means we must acknowledge differences in experience and culture and incorporate those differences into the case plans we develop for our young people.
Our nation has a history of mistreating and subjugating people based on race, gender, sexual identity, indigeneity, and a myriad of other identities, and people get understandably nervous when we start talking about acknowledging and giving the space for racial and gender differences. But in the context of a young person seeking recovery, this may not just mean recovering themselves, but also recovering and grounding themselves back in their identity within their community, ancestors, family, or tradition. As we recognize Global Diversity Awareness Month this October, with its explicit call to recognize and honor diversity and cultural differences, it seems timely to reflect on the services JDTCs provide, and how we can ensure cultural traditions and diverse racial experiences are honored in our programs.
Despite our commitment to honoring the individual experience, JDTCs may not offer therapy targeted at addressing generational trauma, or the historical impact of racism on people of color, despite research showing that these traumas manifest themselves in both physical and emotional ways. This is not to say that all black children experience, or internalize, racism in the same ways, but a holistic approach to recovery must include the opportunity to acknowledge, process, and begin healing from scars inflicted as a result of one’s race. Normal Cognitive Behavioral Therapies do not focus on this, but there are programs, such as the HEAT program, that do. HEAT was designed by black men, for black men, to help them rediscover themselves through spirituality, community, and family. This program goes beyond the idea that to engage in therapy it helps young black men to have someone who looks like them, and instead demands that the therapist and the curriculum help them process all their experiences, including those directly related to race, in order to begin to recover.
Not every JDTC can access the HEAT Program, but all JDTCs can think critically about the populations they have; or, based on demographics in their systems, the populations they should be targeting, and what needs or programming might aid the recovery of those populations. I was in a JDTC a while back that had an influx of refugees, and aside from the standard issues with finding translators and interpreters, the team had made very few adjustments to their program to help youth and families cope with the trauma of fleeing home, seeking asylum, or adjusting to life in the US. Skilled therapists would be able to help these young people process some of the trauma, but they should also consider what community or spiritual practices the family holds dear that would aid them in their healing process. JDTCs should consider how they might be a partner with the community to facilitate this healing (without being appropriative).
Given our history, and contemporary fears around racism and sexism, it is understandable that JDTC staff become nervous when discussing race or gender-based interventions for young people. However, it is important to understand that the way to help young people recover is to allow them to connect with all areas of their identity, and that requires us as staff to acknowledge them, honor them, and provide services based upon their unique needs, including needs related to race and/or gender.
By recognizing these different identities and experiences in our case plans, JDTCs may finally be able to live up to their true, individualized, potential.
Want to know more about addressing racial and ethnic disparities (RED) in your JDTC? Check out the NDCRC’s new RED Program Assessment Tool, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our RED focused TTA.