I still recall the day my 11-year-old son was frisked by a school resource officer in band class. The man was looking for a missing tuba mouthpiece and decided that my son, a tenor sax player, might have it in his pocket. He didn’t.
So why did the school resource officer pick on my middle schooler? My son was an honor student, never in trouble a day in his life, your typical “good kid,” yet this resource officer only saw his brown skin and decided he had “probable cause” to frisk him and humiliate him in front of his classmates. When he didn’t find the mouthpiece, he left.
This type of prejudice infuriates me, but it’s also one of the reasons I became a pediatrician. As a trusted source of support for families, pediatricians are uniquely positioned to prevent and mitigate the impact of racism. We do this by advocating for and promoting change within our practices, our communities, and the systems with which our children interact, including the juvenile justice system. I am proud that the American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy statement outlining how racism harms children’s health.
What happened to my son is just a snapshot of the kind of racial profiling children of color encounter every day, and many face far graver consequences.
Multiple national studies have demonstrated racial bias against youth of color at all decision points in the juvenile justice system, including arrest, referral to court, diversion, detention, petition, adjudication, probation, secure confinement, and transfer to criminal court. In 2019, researchers found that youth of color were three times more likely than white youth to enter a juvenile detention facility; Black youth were six times more likely to enter one.
Youth of color in Pennsylvania fare no better. A bipartisan task force created in 2019 by Gov. Tom Wolf found that youth of color receive harsher punishments than white youth, even for the same offense. The task force also found that although Black youth make up only 14% of the state’s total population, they represent 62% of youth held in pretrial detention and 47% of youth incarcerated in detention facilities.
In June, the bipartisan task force made 35 recommendations to improve Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, including reducing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, requiring racial impact statements for new legislative or policy proposals, and appointing a race equity task force. The report also calls for systematic reforms to address practices that disproportionately impact youth of color, such as setting a minimum age of incarceration at 13 years of age and reducing out-of-home placement.
I, along with other members of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, applaud these recommendations. And now that the fall legislative session has begun, it is critical that the Pennsylvania General Assembly adopt the recommendations to improve the juvenile justice system and advance racial equity for all our state’s young people.
This guidance, developed at the request of bipartisan leaders from all three branches of Pennsylvania government, should serve as a foundation for legislative changes during the General Assembly’s current session. I don’t want my son, or any child, to suffer from the sting of social injustice or the cruelty of racism. Our elected officials should work to enact these changes now.
Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley is a general pediatrician in Philadelphia and a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.