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Racial and Ethnic Disparities across the Juvenile Justice System

Kelly Orts, University of New Haven

Existence of racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system has been a long-standing, well-researched occurrence. This is true in the juvenile justice system as well. In fact, racial and ethnic disparities exist in every processing stage in juvenile justice, and they worsen as a child continues deeper into the system (Majumdar, 2017). Nationally, the African American youth population is only 16% of the entire youth population (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). However, African American youth comprise 32% of all juvenile arrests, 36% of juvenile court cases, and 40% of incarcerated youth (Anderson, 2015). Black youth are also five times more likely to be arrested for person-related crimes, two times more likely to be arrested for property or drug crimes, and nine times more likely to receive an adult prison sentence, in comparison to similar White youth (Jones, 2016).

The multiple stages in the juvenile justice process all involve a variety of decision-makers who have the power to determine a child's future. From the initial police contact, to community programs, to the court system, and ultimately to incarceration facilities, there are many opportunities for a child to be diverted from the system. The level of discretion every decision-maker has at each stage of the process plays a role in determining how minority youth are processed. Although these decisions are meant to be guided by legal factors, such as offense seriousness and prior record, extralegal factors (such as race, family, education, and sex) also play a role, consciously or subconsciously (Gann, 2019).

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the current research relating to racial and ethnical disparities at each stage of the juvenile justice system. In addition to discussing theoretical perspectives, data collection, and relevant public policy, this paper also addresses the accumulation of disparities as youth are processed deeper into the system, and it provides recommendations for each stage. Specifically, this paper highlights the importance of decision-making in law enforcement, diversion programs, court systems, and incarceration facilities. Without understanding the decision-making process, standards, and key players, disparities in the relevant statistics cannot be explained.


Contextual Background

Given that the juvenile justice system was created on the belief that youth are more amenable to treatment and less culpable than adults, it is no surprise that extralegal factors would be taken into consideration to help determine the best path for a child (Leiber et al., 2016). In 1899, Cook County, Illinois, established America's first juvenile court with the idea that it would act "in place of the parents" and provide social services, rehabilitation, and an emphasis on future growth (Mallett, 2018). Since then, however, approaches to addressing juvenile delinquency have evolved on both a national and local level. The "Get Tough" era of the 1990s brought about significant changes to the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems, shifting efforts away from rehabilitative intervention and toward punitive action. At the height of this movement, 45 states increased youth transfers to adult court, 31 states bolstered mandatory minimum sentencing options, 47 states decreased juvenile confidentiality, 26 states increased support for punishment and accountability, and 22 states expanded prosecutions and conviction sentences (Mallett, 2018). These “Get Tough” reform efforts also led to net widening in the juvenile justice system, especially for minority youth (Dillard, 2013).

Theoretical Perspectives

There are many theories that attempt to explain why racial and ethnic disparities continue to persist in the juvenile justice system, even after many decades of acknowledging the issue. Some assert that differential involvement of minorities in criminal activity explains the disparities, while others argue that differential treatment of the minority population explains the situation (Jones, 2016). Differential involvement in criminal activity also could be explained by the indirect effects of the socioeconomic factors minority populations face (Davis & Sorensen, 2013). From this perspective, Dawson-Edwards and Associates (2020) interviewed juvenile justice stakeholders in a midwestern state and found that most participants acknowledged the overrepresentation of African Americans, but these stakeholders found the statistics to be expected and logical, given other extralegal factors. Therefore, the juvenile justice professionals did not perceive racial and ethnic disparity to be a significant issue for which their system is responsible.

Other theories explain differential juvenile justice system involvement as a consequence of selection bias or institutional racism. For instance, symbolic threat theory proposes that the negative stereotyping of African Americans to be dangerous and threatening leads to differential treatment of the population (Leiber, 2013). Similarly, attributional theory criticizes decision-makers for utilizing certain stereotypes to influence their decisions (Taylor et al., 2012). Gender role expectations, for example, lead to stereotyping White girls as passive, in need of protection, and amenable to rehabilitation, whereas Black girls are stereotyped as aggressive, loud, and rude (Moore & Padavic, 2010).

Institutional racism refers to the differential treatment of minorities in society that sequentially leads to less access, opportunity, and power in a variety of settings (Jones, 2016). This issue begins much earlier than police contact and can result in consequences that last long after release from incarceration. Multiple social systems, including education, child welfare, employment, housing, and the justice system, need to combat institutional racism collaboratively. Juvenile justice-involved youth are more likely to have their school performance, graduation rates, and unemployment rates decrease (Campbell et al., 2018). Gann (2019) reviewed the effects of race on juvenile justice decision-making in 43 states and found that 74% of the states had differences in the non-White youth population, in comparison to the White youth population, that could not be explained by legal factors. Improving one stage in the juvenile justice process will not be effective in reducing racial and ethnic disparities if other stages and systems continue their routine practices.


Data Collection

There is a variety of methods available to assess racial and ethnic disparity data. The Relative Rate Index (RRI) is commonly used to analyze rates of racial groups at each stage of the juvenile justice system. This was first introduced by the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) as a standardized method to look at disproportionate minority representation across nine juvenile justice stages, from arrest to incarceration (Dillard, 2013). RRI provides descriptive statistics comparing White youth to non-White youth as they progress throughout the stages of the justice system (Donnelly, 2019). The disproportionate representation index, the updated version of RRI, compares the percentages of racial groups at each stage of the juvenile justice system to the percentage of at-risk minority youth in a specific jurisdiction (Jones, 2016).

There are also challenges to collecting accurate racial data due to a lack of consistency with racial categorization. Collecting data on White youth versus non-White youth will provide limited information. By collecting data on each racial group, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians, cultural risks and needs can be assessed for each population (Peck, 2018). For example, Hispanic youth have a higher risk of educational barriers due to language challenges for both youth and their parents. This not only impairs academic success but also can be a barrier in understanding legal settings (Peck, 2018). By studying the risks and needs of diverse populations, the juvenile justice system can further support minority populations.

Although all research studies have their limitations, it is vital that we continue to advance in methods and data collection to further guide our policy initiatives and diminish racial and ethnic disparities. In their recent review of disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system, Dawson-Edwards and Associates (2020) highlighted the importance of using accurate data in a timely manner on both the local level and state level to analyze racial and ethnic disparities. By utilizing local data, specific policies can address community needs that may differ among urban, suburban, and rural settings.


Public Policy

The OJJDP, under the Department of Justice, is responsible for identifying standards, expectations, and best practices for addressing juvenile delinquency across the country (Dillard, 2013). To address minority overrepresentation in the system, OJJDP created a mandate for states to actively minimize racial and ethnic disparities in order to receive federal grant funding (Donnelly, 2019). Compliance with this mandate includes identifying, monitoring, assessing, intervening, evaluating, and reporting on disproportionate minority confinement and disproportionate minority contact. Without meeting this mandate, states risk losing 20% of their federal funding (Dillard, 2013; Donnelly, 2019). This pushed states to create full-time and part-time positions, committees, and advisory groups focused on addressing racial and ethnic disparities and meeting articulated requirements (Peck, 2018).

Other national approaches to reducing racial and ethnic disparities include the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which established policies in over 40 states that led to the decline of minority youth in detention (Peck, 2018). This initiative brought together researchers and juvenile justice agencies to analyze detention data trends that can guide policy. More recently, President Obama's Task Force focused on understanding explicit and implicit biases in policing and produced recommendations to address racial and ethnic disparities through policy reform in criminal justice, educational, and governmental settings (Peck, 2018).

Despite the numerous studies and the efforts put forth by the government on all levels, disparities in the juvenile justice system have not improved in many decades (Anderson, 2015; Jones, 2016). Minority youth continue to experience more severe treatment at every step in the process. Evaluations of the effectiveness of these reform efforts are limited and continue to show mixed results (Peck, 2018). Future studies focused on evaluating policies addressing racial and ethnic disparities, both locally and nationally, will need to overcome many challenges, including data collection, generalizability, and replication in different settings.


Law Enforcement

Police officers play the vital role of gatekeeper to the criminal and juvenile justice systems. The first contact a child has with the system is generally through a police officer, and early contact has been found to increase chances of future contact (Claus et al., 2018). Police officers have a high level of discretion when handling cases of delinquency. Being on the front-end of the system, the choice of diverting a child or formally processing a child not only shapes youth perceptions of police, but also influences their future likelihood of success (Feinstein, 2015). However, data collection at this stage is scarce, because many times police interactions with youth go undocumented. National Incident-Based Reporting System is the only official source for individual level police arrest data and does not record all diversion efforts (Claus et al., 2018).

Although earlier efforts directed at addressing discrimination are most effective, there is a significant lack of attention given to the front-end of the system. A meta-analysis by Dillard (2013) found only 6 out of 36 studies of disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system reviewed police decision-making. The most common data source used was court records, not arrest data. This would suggest that initial police contact data is missing from many studies and could be beneficial to reducing disparities. Moreover, the lowest average arrest RRI across all states was 1.38 during the "Get Tough" movement of the 1990s. Since then, the arrest RRI increased to its highest in 2008, at 2.2, despites active reform efforts.

Due to a lack of trust, a limited number of options, and a high level of discretion, police relations with youth continue to be a common problem globally (Dillard, 2013). Anderson (2015) used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to study county-level inequality among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics for risk of arrest and self-report delinquency. Although the results showed that 18% of all youth were arrested before their 18th birthday, 25% of the arrested population were Black, 18% were Hispanic, and only 17% were White. Furthermore, African American youth are twice as likely to be stopped by a police officer and are more likely to be charged with more serious crimes, in comparison to similar behaving White youth (Dillard, 2013). In predominantly White communities, the disparity in police stops and arrests worsens for minority youth (Anderson, 2015).

Interviews conducted by Feinstein (2015) with boys in a private minimum-security juvenile correctional facility in Minnesota provide youth perspectives that support these concerning statistics. The population interviewed was 46% White, 13% Black, 13% Latino, and 27% Native American, in the range of 11-19 years of age. The consistent themes found through talking to both White youth and minority youth reflected that White youth received more second chances than minority youth, minority police officers are underrepresented compared to the general population, repeated arrests generally were made by the same officer, and family reputation disadvantaged many youth when interacting with the police. Additionally, minority youth reported that officers mentioned the child’s race during negative interactions and sometimes attempted to intimidate or provoke the child with aggressive force.

Considering the serious differences between policing adults and policing youth, training has evolved to include policing through a juvenile justice lens. One example in Portland, Oregon, consists of a 2-week training on youth interaction that goes beyond delinquency and encourages societal assistance, such as addressing youth homelessness (Dillard, 2013). This allows police officers to engage youth in a variety of settings in order to establish a positive relationship and prevent stigmatization. By educating law enforcement on various issues, such as truancy, mental health, child development, trafficking, runaways, and child abuse, officers will be better educated on the response options they have in working with a child, other than arrest.

Research shows that a positive history with a certain group will lead to fewer biases held against that group (Peck, 2018). Police recruitment efforts to attract applicants with a positive viewpoint on youth and minorities can help ensure future positive interactions with the community. Police officers should be encouraged to invite youth to support their work through community action teams, citizen academies, and mentorship programs (Peck, 2018). School Resource Officers (SROs) also can play a vital role in mending relationships with youth. SROs have similar discretion to police officers within a school setting and potentially can promote a restorative solution, rather than a punitive one (Peck, 2018). Diverting to a restorative justice framework improves community responsibility, relationship mending, and inclusivity.



Juvenile justice decision-makers always have the option to divert youth away from punitive solutions and toward rehabilitative solutions. Just as police officers use their discretion to either formally arrest a child or give them a second chance, other juvenile justice actors hold that same power. Probation officers, for example, can make the decision to release a child, divert them to a community program, or refer them to court. Prosecutors have the option to either formally charge a child or drop the charges.

Ericson and Eckberg (2016) studied diversion decisions in eight urban and suburban police agencies. They found that minority juveniles are significantly less likely to be diverted by police officers, and there were significantly more opportunities for diverting youth in general than were pursued. Additionally, prosecutors charged minority juveniles significantly more often, even after controlling for legal factors. It was suggested in this study that a lack of education on diversionary alternatives resulted in more formal processing.

Diversion is a crucial alternative to the juvenile justice system. The life-long consequences of coming in contact with the system can be avoided by taking advantage of community-based alternatives (Ericson & Eckberg, 2016). These programs are designed to improve life skills for youth, including school performance, prosocial conflict resolution, and vocational outcomes (Peck, 2018). However, Cochran and Mears (2015) suggest that racial and ethnic disparities may even exist in diversion systems. Recent studies have shown that court processing outcomes are directly influenced by other factors, such as poverty, geography, employment, and social isolation (Trey Marchbanks et al., 2018).

Addressing racial and ethnic disparities in additional systems and structures outside of the justice system may increase diversion efforts to a greater extent. For example, there is also an overrepresentation of African American youth in in the child welfare system, as well as in the school-to prison pipeline (Goodkind et al., 2013; Trey Marchbanks et al., 2018). Goodkind and Associates (2013) studied the impact of child maltreatment and delinquency through the child-welfare system, and their analysis showed that Black youth in the child welfare system were more than twice as likely as White youth in this system to be involved in the juvenile justice system. Goodkind and Associates (2013) concluded the racial disparities in their results were at least partly due to disparities in processing the youth, rather than disparities in their behavior.

In school, zero-tolerance policies tend to funnel youth through the school-to-prison pipeline. These punitive measures can be for delinquent acts as simple as chewing gum or falling asleep in class (Trey Marchbanks et al., 2018). In studying the relationship between school discipline and juvenile justice referrals among racial groups, Trey Marchbanks and Associates (2018) found African American and Latin American students were more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system in suburban and rural settings, and African American students were disciplined at a higher rate than all other students in urban settings.

The lack of emphasis on prevention and early intervention for children before entering the justice system is problematic. Without addressing the education, mental health, and other institutions youth encounter, a minority child’s chance of success may never be improved (Peck, 2018). Encouraging the use and sustainability of community-based alternatives to court will lead to more youth being diverted from the system (Peck, 2018). Furthermore, standardizing eligibility and criteria for dismissal, diversionary programs, and referral to court may help reduce racial and ethnic disparities. Specifically, future research to determine whether minority youth are more likely to receive a referral to a diversionary program for similar acts committed by White youth (who may receive an outright dismissal) would be beneficial to understanding diversion data.


Court Outcomes

A child can be referred to juvenile court by a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, police officers, schools, parents, and victims (Freiburger & Jordan, 2011). Once a formal referral is made to the juvenile court, there are many judicial actors who play an important role in deciding the case outcome. Probation officers, intake coordinators, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders all work together to quickly process a single case in a way that will meet the best interest of the child and community safety. The goal of the juvenile court is to balance both punishment and rehabilitation, which suggests that discretionary power can fall too far on either side (Cochran & Mears, 2015). Reliance on limited information can cause extralegal factors, such as race, gender, and other cultural stereotypes, to influence court outcomes.

In 1990, Pope and Feyerherm completed a meta-analysis of 46 juvenile court outcome studies and found that selection bias existed at every decision point, and that race played a significant role (Guevara et al., 2018). These themes that still hold true today. Black youth are more likely to be referred to court, prosecuted, detained, and placed out of their home and into secure facilities (Freiburger & Jordan, 2011). Additionally, minority youth are less likely to receive rehabilitative intervention and are more likely to receive harsher punishments and referral to adult court (Cochran & Mears, 2015).

Risk Assessment

During adjudication and disposition, contemporary judges may make their final decision based risk assessment results (Leiber & Peck, 2015). Risk assessments were created to predict the likelihood of recidivism and help identify appropriate services, in order to meet the best interests of the child and community, as well as to utilize resources efficiently (Barnes et al., 2016). This increases the chances that a child's level of risk is accurately met by the level of service provided through the justice system and community programming (Campbell et al., 2018). The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention also recommends risk assessments as a way to combat racial and ethnic disparities (Barnes et al., 2016). Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) is a popular approach that takes into account a youth's background, risk factors, criminogenic needs, and mental health (Campbell et al., 2018).

Maloney and Miller (2015) studied a juvenile detention risk assessment instrument employed in New Jersey and found that this instrument reduced racial disparities in detention across all counties. Campbell and Associates (2018), on the other hand, examined the influence of ethnicity on juvenile justice program referrals, while controlling for risk. They found that ethnicity still influenced decision-making. Specifically, African American youth and multi-racial youth were more likely to be referred to high-risk programs, compared to White youth. Researchers have shared their concerns regarding the design and generalizability of risk assessments, as they are may not be able to predict risk for Whites and Minorities equally. McCafferty (2018) assessed the use of the Ohio Youth Assessment System-Disposition instrument on 2,600 white and black youth and found that there were more prediction errors for black youth. This highlights the importance of assessing the validity and reliability of risk assessment tools across diverse populations, to ensure legal factors are weighed appropriately (Peck, 2018). Model instruments that have shown to predict White and Black youth with similar levels of accuracy include Florida's Positive Achievement Change Tool and Ohio's Global Risk Assessment Device (Donnelly, 2019).


Based on risk assessments results, a child can be placed on community supervision. Most youth in the juvenile justice system are assigned a probation officer to monitor their services, needs, and compliance, as well as make recommendations about their supervision and release back into the community (Aalsma et al., n.d.). Probation generally is seen as one of the more lenient outcomes for juvenile cases, due to the aspects of community integration. However, Black youth are the least likely to be placed on probation out of all racial groups (Campbell et al., 2018). Between 1985 and 2010, the likelihood of being placed on probation increased for White youth, American Indian youth, and Asian youth, but decreased for Black youth (Campbell et al., 2018).

Minority youth are also more likely to reenter the juvenile justice system for probation violations (Peck et al., 2014). Aalsma and Associates (2017) reviewed case files of juvenile probation officers and found that Black youth were more than four times more likely to be documented as non-compliant. Black youth also received harsher sentences and were removed from their homes more often than White youth, while controlling for other legal factors. Black females were also less likely to be referred to services, in comparison to Black males or White youth in general.

Transfer Decisions

Another option for judicial decisionmakers is to transfer a juvenile to the criminal justice system. Currently, states set guidelines for when to transfer a juvenile to adult court, depending on such factors as the offense, age, prior record, and amenability to treatment. Although the juvenile justice system was created on the basis that youth are less culpable than adults, the ability to transfer a youth to the adult system counters this purpose and actually can lead to increased recidivism rates (Bryson & Peck, 2020).

Although in recent years youth are being transferred less often to adult court, the percentage has increased for minority youth being transferred for the same offenses as White youth (Stone, 2018). Nationally, 4,100 youth were admitted to state prisons in 2002, and 73% were minority youth (Stone, 2018). In a sample of over 50,000 youth, Gann (2019) found that non-White youth were 200% more likely to be waived to adult court, while controlling for legal factors. In a 10-year analysis of a Northeast state, Bryson and Peck (2020) found that Black boys had the highest likelihood of being transferred to adult court, followed by White boys being second most likely, and Black girls being third most likely.

These data pertaining to transfer laws may reflect racial stereotypes during the "get tough movement" of the 1990s, when the use of transfers peaked. The “superpredator” theory labeled inner-city black youth as dangerous, frightening, older, and less innocent (Stone, 2018). Black youth are mistaken, on average, to be 4.5 years older than their actual age (Stone, 2018). Black youth also are tried as adults 6 times more often than white youth (Stone, 2018). In Florida, black boys make up 27.2% of the youth arrested, but are more than half of the youth transferred to adult court. For drug felonies, 8.8% of white youth were transferred, while 30.1% of black youth were transferred (Stone, 2018). In California, Hispanic youth made up over half of the transferred youth population, while White youth were 5%, Asian youth were 6%, and Black youth were 30%. In Texas, minorities represent half of the state's youth, but virtually 100% of the youth in adult jails (Stone, 2018).


Overall, the court system has many moving actors that need to work together in order to diminish racial and ethnic disparities in court processing outcomes. The selection process for positions of leadership should be evaluated to ensure individuals reflect the type of just and fair system to which we aspire. Most judges, for example, are voted in by the people. Although democracy can be a great reflection of the community, elections also invite political gamesmanship. The role of the jury already provides citizen participation. Therefore, judicial elections should not be a popularity vote, but an appointment based on qualifications, experience, and values. Assessing values through tools, such as the Implicit Association Test, can help identify implicit racial bias in future or current judicial candidates (Peck, 2018).

Although it may be impossible to eliminate the implicit biases of any individual, standardizing decision-making that prioritizes objective criteria, such as legal factors relating to the case, can simplify decisions (Donnelly, 2019). Some studies have shown that racial disparities are more extreme for less serious crimes, because decision-makers have more discretion and may be influenced by extralegal factors to make their decisions, whereas more serious crimes are guided by sentencing guidelines (Guevara et al., 2018). This would suggest that implementing more clear sentencing guidelines for minor offenses may be beneficial to reducing racial and ethnic disparities. Additionally, future research on the effectiveness of different types of juvenile sanctions can help identify best practices in handling youth and reducing recidivism (Peck, 2018).



Disproportionate minority confinement is one of the leading issues in the juvenile justice system. Research has shown that race is a significant predictor of incarceration. In state facilities, Black youth are five times more likely, Hispanic youth are twice as likely, and American Indian youth are three times more likely to be incarcerated, in comparison to White youth (Mallet, 2018). In detention centers, Black youth are six times more likely to be detained, and Hispanic youth are three times more likely to be detained, in comparison to White youth, while controlling for legal factors (Mallet et al., 2012).

Nationally, many states use detention as a way to hold youth while court action is pending, or as a punishment for violating probation (Mallet et al., 2012). Davis and Sorensen (2013) studied 38 states and found that Black youth were placed in residential facilities almost 90% more frequently than White youth, even after controlling for arrest. They also found that higher rates of disproportionate minority confinement exist in higher-crime, urban areas.

Although some reform efforts piloted by the OJJDP were intended to reduce incarceration of youth, the impact on incarceration rates was not equal among racial groups. Mallet and Associates (2012) studied the effect of legal and extra-legal variables on detention decision-making for recidivating youth. By looking at a wide range of extralegal factors, such as demographics, education, and mental health, they found significant interactions with race that led to increased likelihood of detention placement. For example, minority youth who had a record of attempted suicide were 5 times more likely to receive detention compared to similar White youth. The chances of detention placement also increased only for minority youth when their age and their number of previous offenses increased.

When analyzing the impact of disproportionate minority confinement reform efforts, Donnelly (2019) found that the unexplained racial disparities in detention placement decreased once disproportionate minority confinement interventions were adopted. This highlights the vitality of focusing on specific and effective reform for minority youth. It is not enough to reduce youth incarceration if we are not helping all races.

Cumulative Disadvantage

It is clear that each juvenile justice stage, from arrest to incarceration, exhibits a level of overrepresentation of minority youth. Given the multitude of studies focused on identifying racial disparities in a specific juvenile justice processing stage, other researchers examined how minority youth are processed through the entire system, rather than at one point in the system. This comprehensive, multi-stage approach to analyzing racial and ethnic disparities potentially can reveal how race can have a direct, indirect, or cumulative effect across the various decision-making stages (Guevara et al., 2018). By comparing White youth and Minority youth entering and exiting the system, many researchers found that minority youth accumulate disadvantages early in the system that end up negatively affecting their case processing in the deeper end of the system (Peck et al., 2014). Shannon & Hauer (2018) found that the greatest disproportions for Black youth in Georgia were in the front-end of the system, while the greatest disproportions for Hispanic youth accumulated in the deep-end of the system.

Studies show that minority youth are more likely to be detained pretrial and that youth who are detained pretrial are also less likely to have their charges dismissed, and more likely to receive harsher punishments, than those who were not detained pretrial (Ericson & Eckberg, 2016; Rodriguez, 2010). This implies that race can both directly and indirectly affect important decisions throughout the justice system. Sometimes the effect of race is not based solely on one fact, but on the cumulative effect of race in juvenile justice processing.

The term "cumulative disadvantage" or "bias amplification" explains how the snowball effect of racial biases in the front-end of the system, which is more common, may lead to negative outcomes for minority youth in the deep-end of the system as well (Rodriguez, 2010). This implies that combatting racial and ethnic disparities will only be successful if every juvenile justice stage, and the system as a whole, actively prioritizes this goal.



The juvenile justice system has a range of goals beyond reducing incarceration and recidivism. The juvenile justice system aims to better the overall well-being of children through education, accountability, mental health, employment, and community relations (Peck, 2018). This entails a community of systems to work together in the best interest of the child. This goal needs to be the same for all children- not just White children. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities is not a matter of criminal justice, but a matter of social justice (Dillard, 2013).

A consistent theme in many studies highlighted the importance of addressing racial and ethnic disparities on a local level to be fully effective. OJJDP provided a national mandate for states to address racial and ethnic disparities in their systems on a local level. Local reform efforts can be more productive and less susceptible to bureaucratic barriers, compared to statewide or national campaigns (Jones, 2016). Furthermore, the resources, culture, policies, and practices all vary among districts that require different needs (Ward et al., 2011). Addressing specific community issues will put local leaders closer to the issue, and therefore provide more accountability for their community. Local community partners, including police department, health providers, social services, and schools, need to work together to prioritize reducing racial and ethnic disparities (Peck, 2018). Additionally, researchers and universities should collaborate to conduct local studies on racial and ethnic disparities that can support local policy (Peck, 2018). It would also be beneficial to recognize other states’ progress, such as in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Washington, as a model for other states, national reform, and future research (Peck, 2018). Although states may vary in legislation, population, and geography, they all share the same issue of minority overrepresentation in all stages of their justice system. Therefore, we can all learn from the challenges and the best practices that ensue as we try to address these issues.

One of the basic underlying causes of racial and ethnic disparities is the bias that influences juvenile justice decision-makers. Many of the studies highlighted in this paper revealed that disproportionate minority contact exists even after controlling for legal factors (Peck, 2018). Through interviews, Dawson-Edwards and Associations (2020) found that most juvenile justice stakeholders were either uneducated about racial and ethnic disparity issues or were well aware of the issue but expressed prejudices about minority youth in the system. We cannot have fair and just decisions being made at every level of the system without fair and just individuals in those positions. Combatting institutional racism requires each stage of the system to make improvements towards equity in order to effectively reduce racial and ethnic disparities in our juvenile justice system.


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Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash


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