Pittsburgh law officials exploring racial disparity in juvenile justice



Local law enforcement officials said they hope spending a day in discussions with a few dozen teenagers will bring them one step closer to fixing a juvenile justice system that disproportionately affects minorities.

Each year, about 4,000 children and teenagers in Allegheny County are referred to the juvenile justice system and roughly 85 percent of them are minorities, said Kim Booth, assistant chief probation officer for the Allegheny County Juvenile Court.

States that receive funding under the federal Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, including Pennsylvania, are required to make efforts to address such disparities. Investigators focusing on the issue say they are trying to fix disproportionate minority contact.

"Think of it as if you would get sick or you don't feel good, that you would get a temperature and, at times, you take that temperature to see what's going on. That's what DMC is all about," Ms. Booth said.

"I always tell people, don't be scared of the term. Don't walk away from it. It doesn't necessarily mean you're racist. It means that you have a temperature and we need to take a look at things. We want to see what's wrong and make it better," she said.

Beginning about 9 a.m. today, about 600 young people, and some as old as 21, will arrive at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's office at The Waterfront in Homestead -- some by bus, others in vans, others accompanied by probation and parole officers.

They'll begin with a panel discussion in which some of the 60 or so teenagers and more than 20 local officers will talk about positive and negative interactions they've had with one another.

Next will be lunch, followed by an afternoon session in which the two groups split. They'll end the day role-playing and then have a wrap-up session.

"We thought if you can educate youth and law enforcement in a way to interact out on the street, we can start to address that [disparity]," Ms. Booth said during a news conference.

Local agencies, including Pittsburgh and Allegheny County police, probation and parole officers and court workers, held a similar forum with local youth at Duquesne University in 2012.

The Pittsburgh police department sent its recruits to the last session. This year, acting Chief Regina McDonald said the bureau will send veteran officers -- include Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers, community resource officers and detectives working special undercover details known as 99 cars that target specific neighborhood crime problems.

"We've had some criticisms about the 99 car crews, and we identified them as participating, as well as a few officers who are involved with the community," Chief McDonald said. "They're out in the street and we want them to be aware of this program. There's a lot of knowledge that they can obtain in regards to child development and the culture of the young people."

Also supporting this year's initiative are members of the Allegheny County public defender, district attorney and sheriff's offices as well as The Center for Victims.


Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.

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