Disproportionate Minority Confinement is prevalent nationwide, and Arizona is no exception. With an estimated youth minority population of 43 percent, minority youth represented 63 percent of commitments to public facilities and 56 percent of secure detention placements in 1997, according to a state profile compiled from various sources by Building Blocks for Youth, an organization dedicated to a fair and effective justice system for minors.
In 1998, 8,268 children in Arizona were adjudicated for the first time. Of that total, 51 percent were white, 35 percent were Latino, 7 percent were African-American and 6 percent Native American. Sixty-four percent of the youth prosecuted in Pima County adult courts were minorities, according to the organization.
Last year, Building Blocks for Youth released a report, "Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?" with detailed findings on the prosecution of minority youth in adult court. The data indicates "over-representation and disparate treatment of minority youth, and raises serious questions about the fairness and appropriateness of prosecuting youth in the adult criminal system."
In Pima County, the report disclosed that 64 percent of cases filed in adult criminal courts involved minority youth and that minority youth were disproportionately charged as adults. While African-American youth made up approximately 4 percent of felony arrests, they accounted for 8 percent of felonies filed in criminal court.
Another finding pointed to the disparity between representation by private counsel or public defenders and the resulting conviction rate in Pima County. White youth, who were eight times more likely to have private attorneys, faced fewer convictions and a greater chance of being referred back to Juvenile Court. African-American youth faced a greater chance of incarceration rather than probation.
Last year, the rate of incarceration in the United States, 699 inmates per 100,000 population, surpassed Russia's rate of 644 per 100,000, according to the Sentencing Project. In 1999, 46 percent of prison inmates were African-American and 16 percent were Latino. During their lifetimes, African-American males have a 29-percent chance of incarceration, Latino males face a 16-percent chance and white males a 4-percent chance, the Project reports.
Jesse Smith, an attorney who's been practicing criminal law in Tucson for 25 years, does not believe the Pima County figures point to overt racism and believes "poverty is more of a factor in Tucson than racism." He may be correct; but regardless of intent, Arizona and Pima County are in lockstep with national trends.