UMBC president: We must end the over-incarceration of youth of color | COMMENTARY

It seems that every day there is a bright light shining on racism and racial disparities in our country. Racial disparities can be seen throughout society — in health care, education and the economy. The policing and criminal justice system is no different.

Youth of color are more likely to be viewed as criminals and are incarcerated at much higher rates than white youth. And if you are Black, you are likely to be treated more harshly at every stage of the system.


The Department of Juvenile Services handles everything from drug treatment to counseling services, but in the last three years 90% of all referrals of youth of color have come from the police, which means most of the young people we see have been touched by the criminal system first.

The key to addressing such systemic injustice is to determine how to apply an equitable response when young people make poor decisions.


While white youth are more likely to receive nonrestrictive, restorative community services, youth of color receive more restrictive and punitive responses that make it difficult for them to complete their sentences in a timely manner. This may happen in part because of a recognized tendency to treat youth of color as if they are older than they really are.

Much of what is wrong with our system of justice can be traced to hundreds of years of inequity in our society. The recent social protests over police brutality in America and beyond reflect moral outrage at this challenge to our shared humanity. Now is the time for us to take action and not just demand it.

The solution has to include police reform, and also a keen focus on addressing critical issues in other institutions throughout our society. In the criminal justice system, we must focus both on ending policies that result in unjust outcomes and on ensuring access to needed resources and opportunities.

Every public entity with a mandate or mission to serve underrepresented communities has a responsibility to act. We take that responsibility to heart. To that end, we intend to expand access to the Choice Program, a long-standing partnership between the Department of Juvenile Services and the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which seeks to disentangle young people from the juvenile justice system and to strengthen youth and family ties to the community through increased educational and vocational opportunities. The program will now serve even more youth — specifically Black children and other youth of color — while also addressing some of the long-standing challenges to making progress toward equity in our juvenile justice system.

As a 12-year-old, I saw firsthand the injustice and inequity of our justice system. Marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, and then arrested and placed in an overcrowded jail with many other Black children, I was treated inhumanely. Yet I clearly remember Dr. King’s words, “what you children do this day will have an impact on children who’ve not yet been born.”

In its 30-year history, the Choice Program has served 25,000 youth and their families, keeping young people in their communities and diverting many from the possibility of lifetime involvement with the criminal justice system — and saving Maryland taxpayers millions of dollars. Our vision was clear: these are children, and if you give children support and love, all things are possible.

When we examine the population served by DJS, we regularly see youth charged with misdemeanors finding their way into incarceration. Moving forward, DJS will use a structured tool to evaluate and identify suitable candidates for the Choice Program and directly refer them to this resource rather than moving their cases through the courts. DJS’s authority to do this extends to misdemeanor offenders only, and it will eliminate the possibility of incarceration as an option for these youth. This approach also allows the program to create invaluable opportunities for these young people.

Take the story of one teenager who participated in the program. Referred by DJS to the Choice Program for support, he received job training and mentoring through Choice’s social enterprise, Flying Fruit. He thrived, and now he’s moved on to put those skills to use as a Starbucks employee. Choice also connected him to a GED program.


Much more needs to be done, and much more is being done and planned. The guiding principle is simple: we must stop incarcerating youth of color for low-level offenses. Incarceration should only be used when a person poses an unreasonable risk to community safety. Even then, a racially equitable response must include a balanced and restorative approach that supports youths’ eventual return to the community. We also must prepare youth for leadership positions by offering them a seat at the table. Young people and their families are well equipped as a result of their lived experiences to offer solutions to the challenges our communities face. We need to listen to them.

We are publicly committing to this work and to reporting regular updates on our progress. This is the right thing to do for our children, and it is the right thing to do for our community. When we move toward justice for all, America will begin to heal.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III ( is the president of UMBC and Sam Abed ( is Secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.