Morgan State forum illuminates justice system's racial disparity

Nearly every juvenile housed in Baltimore's adult prison in August — 41 of 42 — was black, an issue that brought more than 300 stakeholders together Wednesday at Morgan State University to discuss racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Lisa M. Garry, a project director for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said the purpose of the Disproportionate Minority Contact Conference was to address the discrepancy in the number of minorities incarcerated, the societal consequences of inequity, and the actions needed to create safer communities while rehabilitating youth offenders.


"So much of the work is changing our behavior, changing our policies, our practices and expanding our options," said Garry, who leads agency reform projects. "The biggest enemy of any reform is the perception of public safety. We have this mindset that the kids we are encountering in our system are high-risk, felony-type offenders. We have this boogeyman, so to speak, that we're always fighting."

Nationally, African-American juveniles account for 30 percent of youths who are arrested, although only 17 percent of American youths are black. African-Americans also account for 62 percent of all youths who are prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to Jessica Sandoval, national field director for the Campaign for Youth Justice.


A tough-on-crime movement has sent more juvenile offenders to adult jails since the 1980s, and now states are altering laws to find ways to stop young offenders from committing future crimes, Sandoval said.

Camilla Roberson, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said advocates in Maryland want to end the practice of automatically putting juveniles in the adult system when they commit certain crimes. And, in the short term, she said, the state should stop housing juveniles in adult prisons, at least until after a conviction.

Almost 90 percent of Baltimore youths automatically charged as adults end up not being sentenced to prison time in adult facilities, Roberson said. But while being housed in adult facilities, youths are at higher risk of sexual assault and more likely to commit suicide, according to national data.

"Charging youths as adults doesn't reduce crime or protect the public," Roberson said.

Natasha Pratt-Harris, a criminology professor at Morgan State, said the next generation of criminal justice professionals can capitalize on recent momentum to improve disparities, especially among youth offenders.

"Our students need to be well-informed about the work they'll be doing after they leave the halls of Morgan State University," said Pratt-Harris. "While we know there is a disparity that it has continued for so long, there is a shift. There is a movement. There is something happening to recognize there is a problem."

Shaquille Carbon, an English major at Coppin State University and coordinator for the Baltimore Algebra Project, said Wednesday's forum won't necessarily translate into change.

"It could do one of two things: It could either do nothing — because the people who are most adversely affected are not here — or it could potentially be the start to dismantling the current caste system," Carbon said. "If the people who are here go back and bring the information to the people who are most directly oppressed, they can be the ones to liberate themselves with the knowledge."