Diversion Programs Help Keep More County Youth Out of Justice System

St. Louis County Circuit Court
105 South Central Avenue
Clayton, Missouri 63105



Diversion Programs Help Keep More County Youth Out of Justice System
Racial Disparities Persist in Delinquency Referrals by Police, Schools, Families

CLAYTON, MO – January 8, 2021 – The majority of juvenile delinquency referrals to the St. Louis Family Court for low level offenses did not result in formal charges, according to a recent report from the Court. The finding, based on 2019 data, reflects the Court’s heightened focus on diverting young people from the juvenile justice system into programs that allow them to remain with their families and communities and stay in school, while providing supervision to ensure that youth comply with the law.

The majority of 2,628 delinquency referrals for County youth under the age of 17 were for misdemeanors, including (in descending order of frequency): assault, stealing, property damage, misdemeanor drug offenses, and peace disturbance. More than half of the referrals (53.2 percent) originated in 10 county Zip codes: nine in North County and one in Lemay.

The report examined 2019 data in an effort to track and address potential racial and ethnic
disparities experienced by Black youth at each step in the juvenile justice system: referral;
informal resolution; informal supervision; pre-adjudication secure detention; petition (filing of a formal charge); adjudication; commitment to the Department of Youth Services for secure confinement, and certification of youth to stand trial in adult court. White youth make up 58 percent all youth aged 10-17 in St. Louis County; Black youth make up 32 percent, according to 2019 census data.

While Black youth were still far more likely than white youth to be referred by police, schools and family members to juvenile authorities for delinquency, racial disparities diminish at subsequent decision points in the court system, including the issuing of formal charges, commitment to the Division of Youth Services, and certification to stand trial as adults.

“The Courts are, in effect, leveling the playing field,” said Presiding Judge Michael D. Burton. “As the data show, Black youth are being referred to juvenile authorities in disproportionately high numbers by police, schools and others. But that striking disproportionality at the front-end of the process – before kids even step foot in juvenile court -- decreases dramatically as the process goes forward.
“That’s because our Family Court is doing everything it can to collaborate with community leaders and advocates to help keep kids out of the system, out of harm’s way, and on a healthy track to responsible adulthood.”

Among the report’s findings were:

    • Black youth were 7.1 times more likely than white youth to be referred to the St. Louis County Juvenile Office, an increase from 5.7 times more likely than white youth in calendar year 2018.
      Nearly 92 percent of delinquency referrals (91.7%) were made by police; the remainder came from schools and parents.
    • About 40 percent of delinquency referrals were resolved informally. Black youth whose referrals were informally handled were more likely to be “counseled and warned,” rather than detained and formally charged. This was also true for Hispanic or Latinx youth.
    • Black youth were 5.0 times more likely than white youth to be admitted to the county’s Juvenile Detention Center before a judge reviewed their cases, an increase from 2.5 in 2018. Youth with a history of out-of-home placements, negative peer influences and use of a weapon were at greater risk of being admitted to the Juvenile Detention Center.
    • Black youth were 2.5 times more likely than white youth to have formal charges filed against them, an increase from 2.0 times more likely than whites in 2018. Prior delinquency referrals, out-of-home placements, negative peer influence and use of a weapon increased the risk of formal charges being filed.
    • White youth were 1.1 times more likely to be sent to diversionary programs than Black youth.
    • Hispanic or Latinx youth were overrepresented at the decision point of petition (formal charges).
    • Asian or Pacific Islander youth were not overrepresented at any decision point in the juvenile justice system.

The report did not attempt to explain why Black youth are chronically overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, noting that research studies have been divided on whether the disparity is the result of more offenses being committed by Black youth; differential treatment of youth of color as a result of racial stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination; the social organization of the juvenile justice system itself, or the characteristics of the communities served by the juvenile courts.

The report made several recommendations, including:

  • The St. Louis County Juvenile Division should continue to partner with police and schools to develop community-based diversion alternatives to prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system. Those alternatives should be targeted at enhancing equity for youth of color, rather than simply reducing the total number of delinquency referrals.
  • More use should be made of community-based programs in neighborhoods where most of the youth served by the Juvenile Division live.
  • The Court should give youth and their families a voice in decision-making, and encourage active participation in influencing the way the juvenile justice process works.
  • Reevaluate whether the form used statewide to determine whether youth should be placed in detention is race-neutral.
  • Conduct additional surveys, interviews and case analysis to determine how and why racial and ethnic disparities persist.

A complete copy of the report is available here.





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