A cigarette only changes your life if you’re Black

Newsflash: Kids, especially teenagers, do things they aren’t supposed to do.
But there is wide variation in the consequences of youthful, impulsive decisions. Take the example of smoking at school.  Plenty of kids get away with smoking – once or hundreds of times.  Some kids get reprimanded, lose privileges or get detention. But for some kids, particularly Black kids, the consequences are more severe.
I was recently at a meeting and heard a couple of examples that have stayed with me.
One story was of a teenage Black boy who snuck a cigarette at school. Let’s call him Derek. He was issued a ticket, also known as a summary citation, by a school police officer. The summary citation required him to appear at the district magistrate’s office. Derek was found guilty, and then was ordered to pay a fine. Magisterial district justices have broad discretion in issuing community service or setting fines. For some reason, perhaps Derek was perceived as having a bad attitude or not showing proper respect that day, his fine was set at $300. Court fees are issued on top of that. By the time of the hearing, months after the cigarette incident, he now has been found guilty of a summary offense and owes over $450. He couldn’t or didn’t pay the fine, so the judge issued a warning and, hearing no response, the judge referred his case to Juvenile Court for “Failure to Comply.”           
A second example that was shared was of a 15 year old girl, “Monique,” who went to the Dollar General after school, got into an altercation with another girl and threw a can of hairspray, hitting her but not causing any injury.  The police were called, and Monique was given a summary citation for harassment. When she appeared at the magistrate nearly six months later, she was issued a fine of $50.  With court fees, Monique owed $207.85.  Like Derek, she either couldn’t or didn’t pay the fine, and was ultimately referred to Juvenile Court for “Failure to Comply.” 
Let’s unpack these examples a bit because the implications are not obvious and the nuances matter.
First, Derek and Monique were both engaged in fairly unremarkable teenage behavior, what I think of as stupid stuff that has no impact on public safety. Both of them came to the attention of the police, which happens much more frequently to kids of color than white kids. In circumstances like these, police have a lot of discretion about how to respond.  Sometimes police don’t respond at all.  Sometimes they issue a strong verbal warning, make the kids apologize, tell them not to do it again.  Sometimes police call parents. In this case, responding police issued summary citations. If you’re not familiar, juvenile summary citations are only issued for low level offenses that one can’t be incarcerated for: disorderly conduct, truancy, harassment, tobacco use at school, etc. The broad discretion that police have in decisions about whether to issue summary citations creates opportunities for disparate treatment based on race. In 2018, the Pittsburgh Police issued three times the number of summary citations to Black kids, 17 or under, (626) than white kids (228). Adjusting for population differences, Black youth in Pittsburgh are four times more likely than White youth to receive a summary citation.
While a summary citation can look like a traffic ticket and seem like not a big deal, being found guilty for a summary citation has long term consequences for young people.

  • First, summary citations are a form of adult, criminal offense and not part of juvenile court. Lawyers are not provided.
  • Second, the trial at the magistrate can occur, and a child can receive a summary conviction, even if the young person is not present at the hearing.
  • Third, while records of summary citations of juveniles are not publicly available (sealed), they are not automatically expunged. Students are still required to disclose any summary convictions that have not been expunged if asked on applications for college, for a job, or to join the military. The consequences of lying on those applications (by not disclosing convictions) can be significant.

More details about the consequences of summary citations for students can be found here.
Consequences of police involvement for minor offenses don’t stop there.  Fines, like those that Derek and Monique were issued, can themselves become a financial crisis for a poor or working class family; 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense.  When the fines are not paid, Magistrates can refer these cases to juvenile court for Failure to Comply.  In fact, Failure to Comply referrals are the top referral source for youth into the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County, by a lot.  And like summary citations, there are large racial disparities in these referrals. In 2018, 2.5 times as many Black kids (530) as White kids (211) were referred to juvenile court for failure to pay fines. Adjusting for population differences, Black youth in Allegheny County are 9 times more likely than White youth to be referred to the juvenile court for failure to pay fines.
To recap, many kids of all races break the rules and engage in behaviors that they shouldn’t (smoking, fighting, loitering, petty theft, skipping school, etc).  White kids may get into trouble for these things, but Black kids are statistically much more likely to be criminalized for it, the consequences of which limit their options for future education, employment, military service, etc. And, at the end of the day, our community is no safer or better because of it.
FISA became interested in these patterns in 2016, when a report we commissioned, Data Snapshot: Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, revealed that Black girls in our community are 11 times more likely than white girls to be referred to the juvenile justice system (a much bigger disparity than the national average).  We’ve learned so much in the intervening years from our work with the Black Girls Equity Alliance and will share more in future blogs.

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