Racism and Discrimination in the Juvenile Justice System

In addition to broader societal issues of racism and discrimination, discriminatory prac- tices have been identified within the juvenile justice system itself, leading to inequitable outcomes for White and African American youth. As Frazier and Bishop note, several stages of juvenile justice processing exist, small differences in each of which can eventually yield a large cumulative effect by the time a child is referred for treatment or incarceration.

Police officers, who make arrest decisions, may show some bias. One study, using vignettes to simulate arrest decision making, found that police are more likely to charge African American youth and release White youth, while another study documented discriminatory arrest patterns in situations where vi- olent crimes were perpetrated by African Americans against White victims. Police may have more opportunities to come into contact with African American youth than with White youth because much of their time is spent monitor- ing neighborhoods characterized by high levels of crime, or neighborhoods with larger proportions of African Americans.

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Probation officers, prosecutors, and judges make the majority of decisions beyond the point of arrest. Poe-Yamagata and Jones note that African American youth are overrepresented in referrals to juvenile court (intake), placement in locked detention facilities, waiver to adult criminal court, and residential placement as opposed to probation as a disposition. Some evidence also suggests that community-level variables, such as racial inequality and segregation, may condition system responses in that overall status of African American residents is negatively associated with disproportionately harsh treat- ment of youth in the juvenile court. Qualitative research findings indicate that some juvenile justice officials, from probation officers to judges, perceive African American youth in stereotypical terms and that existing diversion alternatives are not always culturally responsive.

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