Iowa City staff discussing juvenile detention rates

BY NICK HASSETT | MAY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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A recently released report highlights a disparity among races in juvenile detention rates in Johnson County, and officials are looking for ways to close the gap.

The Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning in the Iowa Department of Human Rights released the report “Local Discussions Related to Disproportionate Minority Contact.” It describes rates of arrest and incarceration among youth offenders in the Johnson County justice system.

“Basically, the goal was to determine if there are things going on locally regarding minority contact with police, and are there things we can do to help,” said Dave Kuker, an executive officer in the division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.

Kuker presented the data to the Iowa City City Council at its April 23 meeting.

The report made several recommendations in regards to detention screenings.

Geoff Fruin, the assistant to the city manager, said the city is having internal discussions on how to proceed with the recommendations, and he expects staff to make a report back to the city council in 30 to 45 days.

Kuker emphasized that, across most areas of crime, the levels of representation by race were similar, including violent crime and theft.

“With theft, young people like to steal stuff,” he said. “That’s the same across groups.”

According to the report, overall numbers of juvenile detention are going down. The report highlighted whites and African American youth, with a 21.8 percent decrease in detention for whites since 2008 and a 28.4 percent decrease for blacks.

But there was one trend Kuker thought the county and city should work to improve: referral rates to county detention facilities.

According to the report, the average detention rate per 100 referrals for African Americans is 19.1, while the average for whites is 11.6.

Kuker said there were various stereotypes regarding minority crime that proved untrue when the data were examined.

“There’s often stereotypes of weapons, gangs, drug violence,” he said. “But we didn’t see the levels of overrepresentation in those behaviors as we saw in low-level offenses.”

Kuker said the vast majority of arrests were for low-level offenses, and officials should examine whether offenders need to be sent to juvenile court.

“I think the disparity on low-level offenses is a drag,” he said. “It’s something we can do something about.”

Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said the disparity in arrests and referral rates had a lot to do with police calls received.

“Ninety percent of the time we are called to a particular place, it’s generally not cases of self-initiated arrests,” he said. “Now, we’re being criticized for disparate numbers, but we’re being called there. Doesn’t that mean something?”

Hargadine said police evaluate the risk posed by an individual when deciding whether or not to refer him or her to detention.

“When we arrest a juvenile, we have to determine: Are they are a danger to the victim or the public?” he said. “If no, we release them to the parents, but if there’s a potential danger, we detain them.”

An official from the Johnson County Juvenile Court Services was unavailable for comment Tuesday evening.

Hargadine said he agreed with the report’s recommendations and criticized the Johnson County Juvenile Court Services for what he saw as a failure to help with the detention-screening process.

“In this area, the juvenile court is not willing to provide service,” he said. “The juvenile authorities need to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With issues of disparity, that’s where they need to be addressed, instead of automatically assuming the police are responsible.”

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