The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties and standards that it has inspired all provide that every person is entitled to the fundamental human rights that they enshrine without discrimination. The US Constitution and federal and state laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability and other grounds. However, parts of the US justice system treat children in a discriminatory fashion.

1. Gender
About a quarter of children who are in custody because they have been accused or convicted of violating the criminal law are female. The small proportion reflects the fact that they are arrested less often than males for offences generally and for serious violent and property crimes that are likely to result in custodial orders.

Because of the relatively small number of females accused and convicted of crimes, most detention and correctional facilities are oriented to dealing with males. Staff are therefore less likely to have knowledge and experience of what is required to meet females’ needs effectively. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has reported that “programs to address the unique needs of female delinquents have been and remain inadequate in many jurisdictions.”

In 1992 Congress legislated to require states participating in juvenile justice grants programs to analyse gender-specific services for the prevention and treatment of juvenile delinquency, including the types of services available, the need for such services, and to prepare plans for providing gender-specific services for the prevention and treatment of juvenile delinquency. Many states have participated in the programs and a variety of innovative programs have been established. Juvenile justice experts are developing new standards for facilities that will specify the need for gender-specific services. However, these will be voluntary.

Amnesty International considers that providing facilities with voluntary incentives and guidelines is not enough: all facilities should be required to provide services that take account of gender-related needs and should be monitored for their performance in this regard.

Recommendation Authorities responsible for juvenile detention and correctional facilities should require those facilities to ensure that males and females receive equitable and appropriate treatment, and should monitor the compliance of facilities with this requirement.

2. Race
In comparison with their numbers in the general population, children of racial and ethnic minority background are greatly over represented at all stages of the general and juvenile justice systems. The disproportion is most marked for black youth. They make up only 15 per cent of the population aged between 10 and 17, but account for approximately 30 per cent of youth arrested, 40 per cent of youth held in custody in juvenile facilities and half of all cases transferred by juvenile courts for trial in adult criminal courts.

Various sources of information indicate that racial discrimination by law enforcement and justice authorities is one reason for the over-representation of black and other minority children. Evidence of discriminatory treatment and bias in police contacts with racial and ethnic minorities has been widely documented by commissions of inquiry, in court cases, citizen complaints and numerous individual testimonies. Amnesty International has received reports from many communities that police unjustly target black, Latino or Asian males, especially in inner cities, and automatically see them as potential criminal suspects. These include reports of the harassment of minority youths on suspicion of gang membership in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Antonio.

Research studies have also found evidence that minority youths have been treated more severely than similarly situated white youths at different stages of the justice system, from the point of arrest to sentencing. In surveys of people working in juvenile justice systems, many report that they have seen instances of bias.

Federal action In 1992, in response to the increasing disproportion of minority youths in custody within the juvenile justice system, Congress legislated to require states and US territories to take measures to reduce the number of minority youths in secure facilities where their proportion exceeded their representation in the general population. As of late 1997, 38 states and territories were undertaking steps to reduce disproportionate minority confinement.

In 1997 members of a Senate Committee reviewing the legislation opposed the mandate to reduce disproportionate minority confinement. The majority recommended that it be replaced by programs targeted to geographic areas with the highest rates of crime. At the time of writing it was not known whether the amendment had sufficient support to be passed.

Amnesty International acknowledges that the over-representation of minorities in the criminal justice systems cannot be addressed effectively by measures restricted to the juvenile and general criminal justice systems. The major causes of the racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system are rooted in the massive inequalities and discrimination in the US community at large and must be dealt with by a range of economic, social and legal programs that fall outside the scope of this report.

However, the evidence of racial bias in the administration of law enforcement and criminal justice systems demonstrates that special measures to address discriminatory attitudes and conduct within the juvenile and adult justice systems, including by the police, must continue to be used.

In its recent general review of human rights concerns in the USA, Amnesty International recommended that the federal government should increase the use of a current program to reduce racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers generally.11 The federal government should also continue to press and assist authorities to take action with respect to the over-representation of children of minorities in the juvenile justice system.

Recommendation The US Congress should continue to require states to monitor and take measures to reduce disproportionate minority confinement.