Center for Policing Equity on the Treatment of Black Children in Criminal Legal Systems

March 15 2022

Today, the Center for Policing Equity released the following statement regarding recent court cases that touch on the treatment of Black children in criminal legal systems:

The Center for Policing Equity (CPE) welcomes two recent court rulings that recognize and identify a largely unacknowledged impact of White supremacy on Black children and its especially insidious ramifications for Black children interacting with criminal legal systems. These decisions rely on, and in one case directly cite, research done by CPE co-founder and CEO Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff on the consequences of the dehumanization and adultification of Black children—perceiving them as older and less innocent than they are.

Last week, Division 2 of the Washington Court of Appeals, an intermediate level appellate court for the state of Washington, issued a published opinion acknowledging that “adultification is real and can lead to harsher sentences for children of color if care is not taken to consciously avoid biased outcomes.” 

This follows a January ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court (State v. Belcher) that the 1993 sentencing of then-14-year-old Keith Belcher to an effective 60 years' incarceration was imposed in an illegal manner because the sentencing judge relied on the false and racist superpredator theory. Writing for the court, Associate Justice Raheem L. Mullins included parenthetical citations from Dr. Goff's 2014 co-authored paper "The Essence of Innocence,” which documents the dehumanization of Black children, the perception that Black children as older and less innocent than their White peers, the disparate treatment of Black children in the criminal legal system, and the dehumanizing association of Black people with nonhuman primates. The court found that the superpredator theory tapped into and amplified these racist stereotypes, and that the trial court’s reliance on the theory violated Mr. Belcher’s right to due process.

These developments acknowledge the painful reality that continues to plague our criminal legal systems, that Black children are too often denied the same protective standards that White children enjoy, marking Black children instead as adults, with all the legal implications implied. 

While we are heartened that some in the nation's criminal legal systems have begun to address this grievous reality, the simple truth remains that the vast majority of Black children interacting with the nation's law enforcement and courts are met with dehumanization.

Keith Belcher had to wait nearly 30 years for the Connecticut courts to acknowledge the grotesque manner with which he was sentenced as a 14-year-old boy. It is incumbent on all those working in our criminal legal systems to take every step to address the appalling injustice of systemic adultification of Black children, and the destruction these practices have wrought on generations of Black communities.


About Center for Policing Equity: As a research and action organization, Center for Policing Equity (CPE) produces analyses identifying and reducing the causes of racial disparities in law enforcement. Using evidence-based approaches to social justice, we use data to create levers for social, cultural and policy change. Center for Policing Equity also holds a 501(c)3 status.