BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Black youth are four times more likely to be detained or committed to juvenile facilities than their white peers, according to the Sentencing Project.

“In Baton Rouge, we have a population that is roughly half and half Black and white. One might expect maybe disparate impact on the population maybe you would have 75 percent who are Black. It generally hovers around 95 percent,” said Jack Harrison, director of the Juvenile Defense Clinic at LSU Law Center. “The racial disparity in our area is profound.”

Harrison blames law enforcement for the racial disparity.

“It is totally law enforcement who makes unnecessary arrests. It isn’t the judges. It’s not the juvenile district attorney, not the judges in juvenile court, because when all of the children that come in front of them are all Black, they’re not making the decisions, the screening is done by law enforcement,” said Harrison.

“It breaks my heart to hear of the societal and systemic issues that often leads to a person becoming a part of the criminal justice system. I have the privilege of having white skin and so do my children,” said Leigh Rachel, executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference.

Rachel is hoping to make a difference in the numbers. She’s hosting virtual discussions with community leaders and youth advocates to see what’s working, the challenges, and what opportunities exist for the community to support juveniles and/or their families when they end up in the criminal justice system.

“We have the opportunities to make such a positive impact on families,” said Rachel.

Years ago, East Baton Rouge Parish was one of five Louisiana parishes participating in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a pilot program that focuses on reducing the number of unnecessary arrests. The model favors therapy and family involvement over punishment. Since its rollout, the number of children held in detention declined significantly in those parishes, according to youth advocates.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a slight uptick but Harrison said the numbers are going down.

“What we can easily recognize is that many young people were not held in the detention center but the crime rates were not rising. So those kids did not need to be held and they’re coming to court when they’re supposed to come to court,” Harrison stated.

Juvenile justice advocates believe more work needs to be done. They encourage parents to reach out to local and state lawmakers for more reform programs.

Law enforcement leaders say they have expanded their diversion community-based programs in order to reduce unnecessary arrests. They also suggest that parents reach out and have a conversation with a local police officer.