Racial Disparities and Justice


Photo credit: David Y. Lee for Public Welfare Foundation

While youth crime and youth incarceration rates have declined in recent years, studies show that disproportionate numbers of youth of color are still locked up in secure facilities, despite comparable rates of offending among demographic groups. At the same time, adult incarceration rates are moving in different directions depending on the state, but people of color are still vastly overrepresented in the adult criminal justice system.

Last week, the Public Welfare Foundation Board of Directors heard from two experts who are taking on the issues of youth and adult incarceration in different ways.

Titus Kaphar, an artist whose works have been included in solo and group exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA; and the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA, showed some of his work to the Board.

His signature work on incarceration is called The Jerome Project and is still in development. It will consist of a series of paintings, sculpture, and an experimental documentary that includes filmed interviews with currently and previously incarcerated men named Jerome.

For Kaphar, the project has very personal meaning. “My father’s name is Jerome. I left his home in my first year of high school. When searching on the Internet, I found his mugshot and 99 other mugshots of men with the same name and surprisingly similar criminal records and biographies. This project is an attempt to understand the ubiquitous nature of the Jerome story.”

The day after Kaphar met with the Board, James Bell, founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute in Oakland, CA, a Public Welfare Foundation grantee, spoke to Board members about the Institute’s efforts to confront the unequal treatment of youth of color in the nation’s youth justice systems.

Bell, a leading expert on these disparities, recalled his initial thoughts that the Institute could just identify all the decision points in the youth justice system where “…white kids got Tefloned out and black kids got Velcroed in.”

But there were too many such decision points to keep track of, so the Institute has developed a data-driven approach of working in local jurisdictions that focuses on a discrete decision point and simultaneously tries to push culture change within the local system.

Since its inception in 2002, the Institute has worked in more than 120 jurisdictions in 20 states, bringing together judges, law enforcement, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, community members, and officials from schools and other child-serving agencies in regular, collaborative meetings. The Institute uses data – broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and offense – to show where disparities are occurring and to help develop solutions tailored to the community.

“Through doing this work, we discovered that many young people of color are being detained because they have high social needs, but are at low risk for future criminality or danger to the public,” Bell told the Public Welfare Foundation Board.

Yet, the four key child-serving systems – child welfare, public and mental health, schools, and youth justice – are too isolated from each other and, too often, the glaring need to address a child’s basic needs which underlies that child’s misbehavior is evident only after the commission of a delinquent act.

“We’re incarcerating people at great expense to get them services,” Bell noted.

That’s why Bell and the Institute want to focus more on developing strategies to get the schools, child welfare, and public and mental health systems to work together with juvenile justice systems to identify and address children’s needs before they enter into the justice system.

Yet, he underscored the importance of sticking with the justice system as the point of entry for reform, “because it is the most destructive [system] and it is easily gotten into.”

Ultimately, he said, “child well-being is what we should be moving toward. We need to act before any crime is committed.”


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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