Minorities in Juvenile Justice

There is national concern about the overrepresentation of minority youth confined in correctional facilities in the United States. Research focuses on the extent to which the problem is attributable to

  • Minority youths' being more involved in crime.

  • A juvenile justice system that treats minority youths and white youths differently.

  • A combination of these two factors.

In a study of the ethnic and racial bias in Florida's justice system covering the period 1985 to 1987, Charles Frazier and Donna Bishop found that nonwhites were more likely than whites to be referred by intake for formal processing, to be held in detention, to be petitioned to court by prosecutors, and to be incarcerated in correctional institutions. After the researchers introduced controls for age, gender, seriousness of the referral offense, and seriousness of their prior records, they still found significant race effects.

Madeline Wordes and Tim Bynum collected data from police case files from nine jurisdictions in Michigan in 1990. The data reveal that race/ethnicity played a significant role in police officers' decisions about referral and custody. Controlling for offense seriousness and prior offenses, researchers discovered that black youths were more likely to be referred to court and to be detained.

In a study using cases processed through Minnesota's urban juvenile courts in 1986, Barry Feld chastised the juvenile justice system's emphasis on individualized justice for “subjectiveness, arbitrariness, and discrimination.” His findings show that urban black youths were at greater risk for pretrial detention, which prejudiced later dispositions, as well as at greater risk for home removal.

Comparing the juvenile justice experiences of white, Latino, and black youths in Pennsylvania in 1989, Kimberly Kempf‐Leonard and Henry Sontheimer found that both black and Latino youths were more likely than whites with the same offenses, prior records, and school problems to have their cases processsed through the juvenile court and to be detained.

James Austin's 1989 study of the state with the nation's highest rate of youth incarceration documented that, after accounting for factors such as offense and prior record, African‐American youths were overrepresented at all decision points in the juvenile justice system from arrest to commitment to the authority of the California Youth Authority.

If the United States is to ensure equality and fairness in the process of both white and minority youths, it must focus on ways to prevent juvenile crime and on approaches to eliminate system bias that affects decisions involving juveniles. Institutional racism within the juvenile justice system is a primary cause of the overrepresentation of minorities. For example, one instance of system bias is the perception that black families are weaker and less able to provide supervision than white families. Nonwhite youths and their families are less likely to possess the social and economic resources (for example, the ability to retain private counsel and get favorable plea bargains) that are available to whites. Poverty and unemployment are also partly to blame for the differential involvement of minority youth in crime and their high incarceration rates.

Possible solutions include

Recruiting more racial/ethnic minorities for jobs in law enforcement, probation, and court agencies that operate within the juvenile justice system.

Instituting cultural sensitivity training for police officers, probation officers, judges, and other key decision makers in juvenile justice.

Creating employment programs as alternatives to drugs and gangs for minority youths.

Developing guidelines to aid decision makers in reaching decisions and to ensure equity in processing.