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Editorial

Addressing racial disparities

A dozen black youths congregate in the parking lot of a southeast Fort Wayne business, bragging, cussing, maybe roughhousing a bit. Will a city police officer’s approach be the same as it would if a dozen white youths were engaging in the same behavior at Jefferson Pointe?

This is the type of question Hoosiers must honestly answer if the state is to successfully examine why minority Hoosiers are far more likely than white youths to appear before a judge.

The answers are vital for these reasons, among others:

•If the state wants to take a major step toward equality in the judicial system and thereby improve credibility. More trust in the system helps lead to more people obeying laws.

•If Hoosiers want to reduce the number of juveniles arrested and incarcerated for minor offenses. Alternative ways of treating minor offenders will provide immediate savings to taxpayers, and help make those juveniles less likely to commit crimes as adults.

Next week, people involved in the system will start to sort out some of the answers.

Nearly a year after a state commission produced a report on ways to address the disproportionate number of minorities who enter the family court system, officials will discuss the scope of the problem. The Indiana State Bar Association is commended for sponsoring the Summit on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System next Thursday in Indianapolis, along with a separate session Wednesday focusing on police and law enforcement. Hundreds of lawyers, social workers, judges and police will hear from a dozen experts on the issue from across the nation.

Educating officials and opening a dialogue about the real reasons black youths are more likely to appear before a judge to answer criminal delinquency allegations are vital first steps to address the issue.

The summit is one result of the Indiana Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services, which the legislature established to study the problem and recommend action in 2008. While the name of the panel may indeed sound like an example of bureaucratese, it accurately defined the issue, and its report demonstrated in stark terms the extent of the disparities.

“This is an exciting start to getting everyone to talk on a statewide level,” said Allen County Superior Court Judge Charles Pratt, who handles cases involving juveniles.

But it is just a start. Action will be necessary.

The commission no longer exists, but this year’s legislature did pass six bills stemming from its recommendations. Most have to do with the schools, where more minorities are subject to discipline while seeing fewer teachers and principals who look like them.

Police training in dealing with youths is surely one tool. Giving them and the courts more alternatives to arrest – through schools, families and agencies – is another.

Next week’s summit will offer education and start a dialogue. It should also spur officials to start taking necessary steps to make sure the juvenile justice system treats all youths fairly.

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