Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
What Remains to Be Learned?
Largely as a result of federal efforts and encouragement, a wealth of research has documented the nature and extent of disproportionate minority contact, but analysts have been less able to explain these racial disparities, largely because of limits in data, complications associated with definitions and terminology regarding minority status, difficulties in identifying comparable youth, and, more fundamentally, the tension involved in studying issues related to race and ethnicity and crime. Many sizable gaps in the research and policy-relevant literature need attention. Work is needed especially in three areas: description, selection and processing, and intervention.45
In addition, as I have already noted, disproportionate minority contact with the justice system has consequences that extend far beyond involvement in the system itself. To the extent that involvement in the justice system affects education, labor force participation, voting, and family formation, disproportionate minority contact likely produces disparities in many adult outcomes. Researchers must also examine empirically these potentially far-reaching consequences.
Three separate research efforts are needed in the area of further describing disproportionate minority contact. The first is to develop and refine the underlying theory. The fundamental question is why minorities are overrepresented in the judicial system. The differential involvement hypothesis helps frame this issue, but much work remains to be done in exploring variations in criminal behavior by race and ethnicity. Researchers have thus far devised few race- or ethnic-specific theories of crime; would more such theories be appropriate?46 Are the causes of crime the same across race and ethnicity, with only the level of risk factors varying across groups? Or do differences in the social and cultural environments of whites and minorities produce the observed behavioral differences? For example, in minority neighborhoods, is access to meaningful employment and a good education so limited as to increase involvement in crime? And do the higher rates of offending by minorities in turn lead to differential policing practices and consequent selection and processing by the criminal justice system?47 Do differences in the way minority and white youth relate to agents of the criminal and juvenile justice system, for example, lead police to record the actions and behaviors of minorities differently than they do those of whites? More generally, are minorities overrepresented because minority status and poverty are highly correlated? Are minority youth especially likely to be picked up because police do more surveillance in poor, often minority, communities? Recent theorizing about legal socialization,48 street codes,49 racial stereotypes,50 neighborhood well-being,51 and perceived injustice52 may be useful for understanding racial and ethnic differences.
Second, researchers must better describe the different patterns of offending that exist across race and ethnicity. Using a complement of both self-report and officially based records of crime on the same individuals over time, analysts must answer basic questions about the involvement of minorities and nonminorities in crime over the life course. For example, compared with whites, do minorities commit crime more frequently, engage more in certain forms of crime, persist in offending over longer periods of time, and desist later in the life course? Researchers should use longitudinal data to study these issues, especially because it is plausible that involvement varies over time and over the stages of the life course across race and ethnicity. At the very least, studies of this issue will begin to better describe minority and white involvement in crime. The small existing research base on this issue offers conflicting findings. Some studies show few racial and ethnic differences in self-reported offenses,53 while others point to differences.54 Still others report few racial and ethnic differences in both self-reported and official estimates of offending among serious adolescent offenders.55 Because police disproportionately patrol low-income areas, they are more likely to pick up minority youth, and the differential arrest patterns may support perceptions that minority youth should be treated more harshly throughout the system.
Third, researchers should address deficiencies in the data systems. Most crime and criminal justice data on disproportionate minority contact are broken down into only two categories: white and black. These data systems and repositories have not kept up with trends in immigration and changes in categorization of minorities, including the 2000 Census change. More and better research on Hispanics and other minorities is urgently needed. California's experience with Hispanics dominating correctional institutions is a case in point. Analysts should pay particular attention to changes in disproportionate minority contact with respect to Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. Because of the paucity of research involving crime and ethnicity,56 the field has not yet made any firm conclusions about disparities among Hispanics, American Indians, and Asians, and the few existing studies have under-counted Hispanic representation by coding Hispanics as white. Current data mechanisms and systems fail to separate race and ethnicity, lead to significant undercounting, and offer no systematic approach to studying the racial and ethnic differences in crime and contact with the judicial system that require the collection of such data both locally and nationally. Until these shortcomings are remedied, an understanding of disproportionate minority contact will remain elusive.
Selection and Processing and Outcome
Future researchers need to focus more on the first stage of the justice system that juveniles confront: police contacts. The police are a critical part of the decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles. More and better data are needed on police patrolling, on decisions about which neighborhoods to patrol, on behaviors police look for when patrolling those neighborhoods, and on the racial and ethnic makeup of the officers on patrol. Better research at this early stage of criminal justice contact will permit a better grasp of differences in the way whites and nonwhites relate with police, as well as of how the police deal with individuals. Most juvenile justice and delinquency research skips this early stage and starts at referrals.57 Because of the wide discretion accorded the police, it may be that racial and ethnic disparities begin at the very earliest stage and that effects accumulate as youth proceed through the system.58
States vary widely in their level of disproportionate minority contact, thus raising the question of whether local and state systems vary in their selection and processing of minorities. It remains unclear whether minority overrepresentation is a widespread, nationwide phenomenon or a matter of certain jurisdictions and states operating in certain ways. Researchers must make a more systematic effort to examine patterns of minority overrepresentation within individual states and jurisdictions. For example, in states with highly disproportionate minority contact, are the trends a function of certain counties or of police and courtroom workgroups operating in a certain manner?
In short, researchers must improve their understanding both of the characteristics of minorities that merit attention by agents of formal social control and of decision-making by the juvenile and criminal justice system, beginning with the police contact. To facilitate these efforts, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has just published a National DMC Databook,59 which allows users to review the processing of delinquency cases within the juvenile justice system and assess levels of disproportionate minority contact at various decision points using national data for 1990-2004. Data tables can be formed for all delinquency offenses, person-oriented offenses, property offenses, drug law offenses, and public order offenses, as well as various decision points - juvenile arrests, cases referred to juvenile court, cases diverted, cases detained, cases petitioned, cases adjudicated, adjudicated cases resulting in probation, adjudicated cases resulting in placement, and cases judicially waived. The data may also be displayed as counts, rates, or RRIs. Figure 1 presents an example of one such output, showing the RRIs for juvenile person-oriented offenses for minorities; African Americans; American Indians and Alaskan Natives; and Asians, Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. The available data do not make it possible to study racial disparities in arrest experiences involving Hispanic youth.
Two issues regarding processing remain particularly problematic. The first is the need to be able to compare "similarly situated" youth of different race and ethnicity - those youth who have committed the same offense, have the same prior record, and have the same personal needs. Such details are difficult to corroborate perfectly, especially in small-scale studies. Barry Feld60 argues that "similarly situated offenders, defined as 'similar' on the basis of their present offense or prior record, can receive markedly dissimilar dispositions because of their differing 'needs.' Because the individualized justice of the juvenile court classifies youth on the basis of their personal circumstances, then in a society marked by great social, economic, and racial inequality, minority youth consistently find themselves at a disadvantage." A second problematic issue is whether the juvenile justice system actually engages in differential processing of minority youth. Kimberly Kempf-Leonard61 argues that the system reacts differently to youth because they are not similarly situated in terms of what they need to succeed. In particular, she notes that minority youth disproportionately have more personal deficits that are being addressed by juvenile justice services.
With researchers unable even to agree how to explain disproportionate minority contact, how are they to agree on strategies to reduce it?62 Advocates make many efforts to address minority overrepresentation in the system, but most such efforts provide intervention and prevention services and do not address changes in the way the system operates. And few of these interventions are evaluated rigorously to see which work best. To be sure, some state juvenile justice systems have developed promising programs and initiatives. Santa Cruz, California, for example, made many changes in its juvenile justice system to reduce minority overrepresentation.63 Areas targeted for improvement included cultural competence planning and training of staff, data tracking, sensitivity to risk factors included in risk instruments, programs to work with families, and diversion options, especially for minor and drug offenders. The reforms succeeded in reducing minority overrepresentation, but such efforts remain rare, and none has been rigorously evaluated.64
If states and localities undertake initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, especially using strategies with a track record of success, researchers and policymakers will be able to examine how various regulatory agencies operate as part of the initiatives and try to help them work most effectively. The aim of such initiatives would be to reduce the harm to youth caused by their involvement in the system and to change practices within the system and related agencies that exacerbate that harm.65 The MacArthur Foundation's Model for Change Initiative is already in operation in four states. Briefly, that initiative is designed to make juvenile justice systems more rational, fair, effective, and developmentally sound and to develop models of successful systemwide reform for other systems to follow. Each of the four states involved is responsible for identifying target issues, planning reforms, and working with state and local agencies and organizations to shape and implement the reforms.
Implementing system changes, both large and small, and rigorously evaluating their results will help identify points of intervention that can be built on to keep judicial systems from inadvertently exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities. Some simple strategies that have been successfully used in other areas include providing culturally appropriate training for staff, from police officers through court and facility personnel, and hiring bilingual staff who can communicate with youth from all demographic groups.66