Between 2007 and 2011, African-American youth were nearly 250 percent more likely to be referred to juvenile court for prosecution than their white counterparts. Their ratio is followed by Native American youth, which are 80 percent more likely more likely to be deferred. Overall, minority youth are 22 percent more likely to be deferred.
To determine the ratio, researchers calculated the number of minority youth in a particular aspect of juvenile law and the overall population of each county.
In arrests, minority youth were nearly 85 percent more likely to be arrested than white youth statewide, the study found. But researchers said that number is likely much higher because counties count Latinos as white in their record keeping. Latino is an ethnicity, not a race.
Sarah Veele, one of the researchers from the Washington State Center for Court Research, said there isn't a federal or state requirement for local agencies to track ethnicity in their juvenile arrest data, so Latinos are put in the "white" category.
Researchers looked at eight categories, ranging from arrests to diversion program enrollments. Still, about 40 percent of all cases were missing data on whether the youth was Latino and 5 percent of cases had no indicator of race or ethnicity.
"Increasing the quality of data collected by courts is key to fully understanding how and where racial and ethnic inequality arises," Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said in a statement.
Once minority and white youth get to sentencing, the disparities begin to even out, Veele said, because judges usually follow sentencing guidelines.
"What we're seeing is that the disparities are occurring earlier, such as arrests, referrals to juvenile court, and as you get deeper the outcomes are relatively comparable," Veele said.
Veele said this particular study lacks other data points, including severity of charges and crimes as well as criminal history of the youth. She is hoping this study prompts consideration of more complete record keeping among local agencies. The researchers released county-by-county data inform local authorities of what they have and don't have in their records.
To Enrique Gonzalez of the Seattle-based El Centro de la Raza, the findings echo something that he sees in his job. As a juvenile justice advocate, he works with dozens of teenagers from Seattle, including many that have brushes with the law. For him, by the time youth come in contact with police, it's already late in the problem.
"The problem really starts early," Gonzalez said. We need to look at "the link between juvenile justice, kids incarcerated and the achievement gap in schools. Most of the kids who end up in the juvenile system have some sort of contact with school discipline beforehand."
Gonzalez said there is a bit of irony in the system, in that some programs for trouble youth don't kick in unless a judge sentences them.
Veele said counties such as Benton, Franklin, Spokane, Pierce, King and others have taken some remedial steps, but many counties don't have the resources.
Private organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have provided money for studies and initiatives focused on alternatives to detention. The state has also chipped in.
Pierce County is one of the counties that has worked with the foundations. After examining their own data in 2003 and seeing disparities among African American youth, the county began seeking remedies, including axing pricey one-on-one therapy programs that weren't yielding results.
Now, Pierce County provides in-person visits to remind youth of court dates and transportation to court hearings if needed. They have also hired an African American therapist who works with African American youth exclusively.
"We don't want kids languishing in our system, hanging in limbo waiting for sentencing," said Shelly Maluo, Pierce County's Juvenile Court Administrator. "The more they are in limbo, the greater the chance they re-offend or not show up to court."
In Pierce County, African American youth are two and a half more likely to be arrested. Maluo acknowledges that more can be done to close the gaps.
But to Gonzalez, the data backs up what he hears from kids.
"They don't feel they're trusted or respected by law enforcement," Gonzalez said. "An officer is more likely to arrest a student of color rather than ask questions and talk things out."
A message to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which provided the data on arrests, was not returned.