Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Section 1.8

Judicial, Legal, Law Enforcement, Justice, Social Service and School Professionals Should Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities by Being Culturally Aware and Ensuring Impartial and Equal Access to Culturally-competent Prevention and Intervention Services and Treatment for Youth Charged with Status Offenses and their Families

Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) refers to the disproportionate representation of ethnic, racial and linguistic minority youth in the juvenile court system.  The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was broadened in scope in 2002 to require that states1 address “disproportionate minority contact” (emphasis added) instead of only being required to address the disproportionality of minority youth in confinement.  Under the JJDPA, the federal government can withhold some of a state’s future grant allocation for the subsequent year if they fail to address disproportionality at all stages of justice system involvement.2

Minority youth are overrepresented in every aspect of the justice system.  African American youth represent 16 percent of the adolescents in this country, but comprise 40 percent of the youth incarcerated in local detention and state correctional facilities, and Latino youth are incarcerated in local detention and state correctional facilities nearly twice as often as white youth. Research shows that youth of color are treated more harshly than white youth when charged with the same category of offense, including status offenses.3  In 2009, the runaway case rate for African American youth was more than three times the rate for white youth, and the ungovernability case rate for African American youth was more than twice the rate of white youth.4  That same year the liquor law violation case rate for American Indian juveniles was more than three times the white rate.5

African American youth represent 16 percent of the adolescents in this country, but comprise 40 percent of the youth incarcerated in local detention and state correctional facilities.4

To alter the overrepresentation of minority youth in the system requires an understanding of and action plan to address the underlying disparities that bring minority youth in contact with the system.6  Effective responses to youth charged with status offenses and their families must have the intent and the effect of reducing the disparate treatment of minority youth at all points along the continuum, from prevention to identification to intervention.  

There are many things system professionals, from law enforcement to social service providers and courts, can do to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including:7

  • Collect and analyze data at all decision points so intentional strategies can be developed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Use culturally competent screening and assessment tools at appropriate points and throughout a status offense case.
  • Implement family engagement and alternative dispute resolution strategies during status offense cases.
  • Provide access to family-connected and community-based services in youths’ home communities, especially where a community may have disproportionately high involvement in the status offense system.

Systems can also look to a variety of initiatives for guidance on how to reduce racial and ethnic disparities.  For example, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) has developed risk assessment instruments to be used at detention admissions, created effective alternatives to detention and supported expedited case processing.  By making DMC reduction a key element in detention reform, JDAI sites, among other reforms, have lowered the number of minority youth detained and provided youth better opportunities to avoid justice system involvement through community-based services.8

Latino youth are incarcerated in local detention and state correctional facilities nearly twice as often as white youth.

Another important way professionals can work to prevent and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in status offense cases is by implementing practices that are culturally and linguistically competent.  Cultural competency refers to the ability to effectively engage and interact with individuals from other cultures.  Linguistic competency refers to the ability to effectively communicate with those whose first language is not English.  While the status offense system can be complicated for any young person, it is even more difficult to navigate when the youth and family hold different cultural norms and values, and when English is not the child’s or the family’s first language.  System professionals can be more culturally competent by implementing policies and practices and delivering services in a way that take into account cultural factors and by ensuring use of cultural knowledge in training, screening and assessment and policy administration.9  System professionals can be more linguistically competent by ensuring that the information they convey, whether written or oral, is easily understood by a diverse audience, including those who are not fluent in English or who may have low or no literacy skills, as well as children and adults with disabilities.  Translating key documents, reports and court orders will be essential, as well as ensuring that an interpreter is present during hearings and meetings.  In addition, a significant number of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth in the justice system are also youth of color.  Programs should also be culturally fluent with regard to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.10

1 In this context, “states” refers to all U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia.

2 Soler, M. and Lisa Garry. (2009) Reducing Disproportionate Minority Contact: Preparation at the Local Level. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 

3 Although some status offense charges, such as liquor or curfew violations originate from police interaction or arrest, many referrals to the status offense system come from schools, home, or other service providers.

4 Puzzanchera, C. Adams, B., and Sarah Hockenberry. 2012. Juvenile Court Statistics 2009. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.

5 Id.

6 Chapin Hall Center for Children. (2008). Understanding Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. Available at: http://cjjr.georgetown.edu/pdfs/cjjr_ch_final.pdf.

7 For more suggestions on what local governments can do to reduce DMC, see: Disproportionate Minority Contact Technical Assistance Manual (2009). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available at: http://www.ojjdp.gov/compliance/dmc_ta_manual.pdf; see also Annie E. Casey (Website). Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative: http://www.aecf.org/MajorInitiatives/JuvenileDetentionAlternativesInitiative.aspx.

8 Armour, J. and Sara Hammond (2009). Minority Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: Disproportionate Minority Contact. Washington, D.C.: National Conference of State Legislatures; Detention Reform Brief 3: An Effective Approach to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice (2009). Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

9 A Fair Juvenile Justice System: The Importance of Linguistic and Cultural Competency (2007). Washington, D.C.: National Council of La Raza. Available at: http://www.modelsforchange.net/publications/400.

10 See, e.g., Irvine, A. (2010). “We’ve had Three of Them: Addressing the Invisibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Gender Nonconforming Youths in the Juvenile Justice System.”  Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 19:3, pgs. 675-701.