The criminalization of Black girls in Allegheny County is real


Report says Black girls 10 times
more likely than white girls to be
referred to juvenile justice

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

In Allegheny County, Black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice.

That’s the standout headline from “Understanding and Addressing Institutionalized Inequity: Disrupting Pathways to Juvenile Justice for Black Youth in Allegheny County,” a report recently commissioned by the local Black Girls Equity Alliance.

When teens are referred to juvenile justice, it begins the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which has disproportionately affected African American youth across the country. Nationally, the report said, Black youth are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to juvenile justice.

In 2019, 492 Black girls were referred to Allegheny County’s juvenile justice; 169 white girls were referred, though there are far more white girls in Allegheny County than Black girls. Out of the 492 Black girls that were referred, 155 (32 percent) were referred by the Pittsburgh Public Schools police department. Just 15 white girls (9 percent) were referred to juvenile justice by PPS police.

The other leading agencies that referred Black girls to juvenile justice were the Magisterial District Judge (140), Pittsburgh Police (53), McKeesport Police (18) and Monroeville (13).

The leading agency that referred white girls to the county’s juvenile justice was the Magisterial District Judge (54). Only 8 white girls were referred by Pittsburgh Police.

The report revealed that “the majority of arrests made by PPS police are for minor offenses that are not safety related.” More than half of the Black girls arrested by PPS police resulted in a charge of “disorderly conduct,” which the report calls a “catch-all charge that includes things like excessive noise, obscene gestures or language, or other typical teenage behaviors. It is highly subjective, and there is a wealth of evidence that it is an offense for which implicit and explicit racial biases come into play.”

The report revealed that in 2019, all arrests of Pittsburgh Black girls that ultimately resulted solely in a charge of disorderly conduct were made by PPS police.

The report also gave data for Black boys, in which they were seven times more likely than white boys to be referred to juvenile justice in Allegheny County.

When it comes to summary citations, Black girls in the county are four times more likely to receive a summary citation than white girls from Pittsburgh Police, and 11 times more likely to be issued a citation than white girls from PPS police.

A summary citation in Pennsylvania is the most minor type of criminal offense, and can include disorderly conduct, loitering, harassment, and low-level retail theft, among other charges. A conviction of a summary offense usually results in a fine, but it can remain on a person’s criminal record. A summary offense conviction can be expunged from a person’s record if the person was under 18 at the time of the offense, and is now over 18 and it’s been six months after the fine was paid. If a person was adult age at the time of the offense, it can be expunged if there is a five-year period where the person was never arrested, along with the payment of any fines involved.

The report from Black Girls Equity Alliance lets readers know that when police are called to situations in which young people are involved, police don’t have to take any formal action against the youth. Police can make an arrest, issue a summary citation, or not arrest or charge anyone. But when the rates for Black boys are factored (2 times more likely than white boys to receive a citation from city police, 6 times more likely from PPS police), “this suggests that Black youth are facing legal consequences for minor behavior in school, when those same behaviors are handled by school personnel when committed by white youth,” the report read.

KATHI ELLIOTT, DNP (left), is executive director of Gwen’s Girls Inc., Pittsburgh’s longtime organization that advocates for the betterment of Black girls and young women. Dr. Elliott also was an author in the recent report released by the local Black Girls Equity Alliance, stating that Black girls in Allegheny County are more criminalized than White girls.

The authors of the report were Kathi Elliott, executive director of Gwen’s Girls Inc., Sara Goodkind (University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work), Ghadah Makoshi (ACLU of Pa.) and Jeff Shook (University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work). Collectively, they implored school districts, especially Pittsburgh Public Schools, to “provide educators with the training and support they need to help, rather than criminalize youth.”

Ways to do this, according to the report, include: reallocating the funds formerly used for school police to hire additional counselors, social workers and psychologists; implement a trauma-informed, restorative justice approach in schools; and support school personnel in working with students with disabilities.

The report’s authors also directly addressed those in law enforcement, including judges and local policymakers. “Develop, fund and promote alternatives to justice system processing for youth who need help,” they said in the report.

The ways to do this? “Work with the police and District Attorney to develop pre-arrest diversion countywide…Stop referring youth to juvenile justice for failure to pay fines for summary citations…Ensure police and magistrates can access information on community resources and supports, perhaps via a 24-hour hotline, so that they will not feel they must refer youth to juvenile justice to receive needed supports and services,” the report read.

Across the U.S., people are beginning to realize that the criminalization of Black girls is a harsh reality. In a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education office for Civil Rights, titled “Discipline Data for Girls in U.S. Public Schools,” Black girls were four times more likely to be arrested and three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white girls.

Research by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, reported in a USA Today article from May 2019, found that nationally, Black girls are almost six times more likely to get out-of-school suspension than white girls, and more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other gender or race of student.

SARA GOODKIND (left), one of the four authors of the report.

Earlier this year, a long-form documentary was released about the topic: “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” by Monique W. Morris, Ed.D., and Jacoba Atlas. Morris wrote the highly-acclaimed book of the same name in 2015. Morris also founded the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, an organization that works to transform public discourses on the criminalization of Black women, girls and their families.

The documentary features five Black girls from cities such as Miami, Portland and Columbus, Oh., who discuss how they overcame challenges in their schools and the juvenile justice system.
“This documentary is an opportunity for the Black community and beyond to finally see that this is not a niche issue and can become a vicious cycle if we do nothing,” Morris has said.

The report from Black Girls Equity Alliance puts a magnifying glass on what’s happening to Black girls here at home.

“This review of local data demonstrates that our system is set up such that school police and district magistrates are perpetuating racism and punishing the poverty stemming from that systemic racism,” the report’s authors wrote. “The young people caught up in a system that criminalizes adolescent youth are the living manifestation of the school-to-prison pipeline in this region. Our collaborative work has led us to conclude that we are overpolicing Pittsburgh and Allegheny County youth, especially our Black students, who are disproportionately shouldering the harmful consequences of system involvement.”

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