Juvenile Justice System and Minority Youth Research Paper

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The issue of racial and ethnic disparities has been a controversial topic within the juvenile justice system, as the overrepresentation of minority youth is a continued concern. In 2008 alone, minority youth represented 13.3 % of the United States population, yet represented 36.9 % of all cases handled by the juvenile courts. Differential offending (i.e., minorities commit more and more serious delinquent acts compared to Whites) and racial bias among juvenile justice decision-makers are the two main explanations for understanding the relationship between race and juvenile justice system proceedings. The following chapter will demonstrate how the juvenile justice system responds to minority youth through the use of theory, empirical research, and policy. From a review of the literature throughout these three areas, possible reasons for minority overrepresentation will be explained, including specific policy recommendations to lead to the equitable treatment of all youth, regardless of race and ethnicity.

Conceptualization Of Racial Bias

Compared to Whites, minorities are disproportionately involved within all stages of the juvenile justice system. They are more likely to be arrested, petitioned, held in secure detention, adjudicated (found guilty), and receive harsher sentences at disposition. One explanation focuses on differential offending, while the other argues that racial bias by juvenile justice decision-makers (police, prosecutors, officers, judges, etc.) influences the way minority youth are treated throughout each stage. Researchers generally acknowledge that both of these explanations may account for the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. For the purpose of this research paper, the focus will be on racial and ethnic bias as an explanation to explain race/ethnic differences in the juvenile justice system.

Racial/Ethnic Bias

Underlying most empirical research examining race and the adult and juvenile justice systems centralizes on the concept of “racial/ethnic bias.” Up until the 1980s, people perceived that blatant, overt, or intentional racial bias and racism occurred against minorities. However, this was not necessarily the case. Zatz (1987) reviewed over 50 years of sentencing research and concluded that from the time of the civil rights movement, there has been a transition from overt to covert racial bias. While overt discrimination was present throughout the 1930s to mid-1960s (race was directly related to more harsh sentencing outcomes), sentencing decisions from the late 1960s to the early 1980s confirmed the effects of race were more implicit, subtle, or subconscious. Recent research has found the presence of unconscious negative race stereotypes that result in Black youth being viewed as more blameworthy, resulting in harsher outcomes in juvenile justice proceedings, while overt or conscious race bias had little impact (Graham and Lowery 2004). However, subtle bias is no less harmful than overt bias.

Examinations of the existence of implicit bias have found that that not including African Americans, every racial group unconsciously associated “African American” with the terms crime or danger. Specifically within the juvenile justice system, probation officers have been found to inhibit a form of implicit racial bias, by describing Black offenders as actively making poor and destructive choices to maintain a criminal lifestyle (Steen et al. 2005). However, this thought process was not extended to White youth. Additional research has also suggested that juvenile justice decision-makers perceive Hispanic youth as a social threat, therefore are treated more severe within court proceedings.

From this overt to hidden transition, racism or racial bias was evident through the effects of race that operate indirectly or in interaction with other conditions (e.g., age, employment status, prior record, family situations). For example, age and employment status may seem race neutral but can increase racial disparities at numerous decision-making stages (Leiber and Johnson 2008). Within the juvenile justice system, age is considered a mitigating factor due to the belief that younger youth lack mens rea (intent) due to immaturity, inexperience, and inability to resist peer pressure. From this, older youth are seen as more responsible and handed more formally than younger youth, who receive a “youth discount.” However, Leiber and Johnson (2008) found that White adolescents received a “youth discount” at intake, yet similarly situated Black youth were referred to further proceedings. Therefore, the “youth discount” did not extend to African American youth, regardless of the age criterion supported by the juvenile court.

Another example of race effects that are masked by other conditions is the research by Bishop and Frazier (1996) who found by juvenile justice officials perceived single-parent minority families as more broken and dysfunctional than single-parent White homes. In sum, additional research has found that both African Americans and Hispanics are treated more severely than similarly situated Whites, even though other legal and extra-legal factors (including the gender of the decision-maker) were taken into consideration (Bishop et al. 2010).

Contexts Of Juvenile Justice Decision-Making

Traditional Theories

Prior research examining race and decision-making in the juvenile justice system have traditionally explained minority overrepresentation based on consensus or conflict approaches. Established by Emile Durkheim, the consensus approach is based on the idea that laws, punishment, and treatment are formed from a broad consensus of societal norms and values. From this, racial bias in the criminal justice system is seen as a random occurrence for the reason that laws bound the discretion of decision-makers to follow strict legal criteria. In other words, race differences in offending are due to minorities’ differential involvement in crime.

The conflict approach assumes the opposite of the consensus approach, which argues that there is a lack of consensus within society. According to the conflict tradition, majority groups utilize their power to exert control over minority groups. By controlling the “powerless” groups, majority groups are able to protect their own interests and power by controlling the political, economic, and social realms of society, including the law, law enforcement, and the court system. Majority groups exercise social control over the powerless group, which results in minorities becoming labeled as outsiders, deviants, delinquent, and criminal, and therefore subject to harsher sanctions.

The labeling process is central to one theory within the conflict tradition, labeling theory. The labeling perspective stresses that minorities are stereotyped based on negative labels and the inability to acquire necessary resources, which results in differential treatment compared to Whites. Juvenile justice decision-makers may take into consideration negative images and stereotypes of minorities (e.g., dangerous, drug users) to assess culpability, blameworthiness, or treatment possibilities (Graham and Lowery 2004).

A criticism related to both conflict theory (deemphasizes the role of stereotypes) and labeling theory (deemphasizes the role of power) is the inability of both theories to account for research that has shown equitable treatment for both minorities and Whites or instances where Whites are treated more harsh. Due to the economic orientation of conflict theories, the majority and minority groups were based on class, ignoring the specific effect of race. In other words, race effects were masked by economic status, and the reason for differential treatment was due to Blacks being disproportionately poor and powerless (Blalock 1967). Consensus theory also been critiqued due to its inability to conceptualize the complexities between structural and interactional characteristics within race and decision-making (Sampson and Lauritsen 1997). From these criticisms, recent research has begun to include the role of contextual and structural factors into the understanding of decision-making outcomes within the juvenile justice system (Rodriguez 2010; Sampson and Laub 1993). The types of contextually situated theories expand beyond consensus, conflicts, and labeling perspectives to take into account structural characteristics that may also influence decision-making.

Macrolevel Theories

As discussed earlier, the emergence of contextual approaches to understanding minorities and differential treatment compared to Whites was due to shortcomings from consensus and conflict perspectives. In the sections that follow, both macro-and microlevel theories are examined within the context of juvenile justice decision-making with possible reasons for minority overrepresentation. First, macrolevel theories are discussed and can be identified by a focus on structural and contextual characteristics of neighborhoods and communities. Crime rates, impoverishment, minority representation, community urban-rural composition, and political orientation are some of the factors that research has found to influence decision-making within juvenile courts. Second, microlevel theories are examined utilizing evidence focused at the individual level for racial disparities within the juvenile justice system, including race stereotypes, decision-makers use of discretion, and attribution bias.

Urbanism And Formal Rationality

The theoretical foundation for much of the earlier research that examined community characteristics and criminal justice decision-making was the work by Max Weber (1969). His research called attention to the interrelationships between urbanization and bureaucratization and its influence on social control. Weber wanted to understand why and how people orient themselves to the legal system based on their own values and rules. He argued that the two institutions that regulate and guide people within a society are the economy and legal system. The link between the two systems is formal rationality, which refers to universally applied laws, standards and rules. Weber believed that in a capitalist society, all decision-making within the formal rational legal system is grounded the rules themselves, therefore the law is applied to similarly situated individuals in an equal manner based on legal criteria. From this, discretion on the part of the decision-maker is limited. Once differences in crime severity are taken into account, few differences should exist between minorities and Whites concerning their contact and involvement with the criminal justice system.

In contrast to formal rationality, there is also informal or “substantive” rationality, which refers to a plethora of external values including beliefs about justice and respect. In this situation, decision-making depends more on informal criteria and social tradition, instead of an equal manner based on legal criteria (formal rationality). Within this type of legal system, discretion is enhanced among decision-makers, concluding that similarly situated individuals may be treated differently. For example, in a more rural environment, minorities should experience higher rates of involvement in the criminal justice system compared to Whites, due to decision-makers reliance on racism, stereotypes, and other subjective discretionary factors.

However, other theorists have argued that urban courts will demonstrate greater racial discrimination than rural courts. According to this perspective, decision-makers who adhere to a formal rationalized legal system may not question the procedure or substance of the law but will accept them as binding and therefore rely on factors that may be biased (e.g., prior record, family situations). Also, because urban courts are bombarded with a large number of cases, decision-makers might classify offenders into routine types. In doing this, the types are based on stereotypes about minorities, the poor, moral character, motivation, and behavior (Gaarder et al. 2004). Therefore, the influence of race and other extralegal variables (e.g., stereotypes) on more severe outcomes will be greater in urban than rural settings. Overall, research is mixed within these varying perspectives. Some research has revealed that rural courts are less formal and more discriminatory against minorities, while other research has shown that urban courts are more likely to be punitive and influenced by racial stereotypes.

Minority Group Threat/Racial Threat Theory

Another theoretical perspective important for understanding the influence of structural characteristics, race, and social control is Blalock’s (1967) minority group power threat thesis. This perspective is in contrast to the traditional interpretation of conflict theory, where the focus is on the perceived or actual threat that minority groups pose on majority/advantaged groups. From this, the interchangeable terms “racial treat” or “minority group threat” are contained within a general “group threat” orientation of the traditional conflict theory. Within this group threat orientation are two interrelated factors: the size of the minority population and the economic situation of minorities compared to the majority/advantaged group.

Blalock (1967) argues that the larger the proportion of the minority group population, the greater the competition for economic resources (jobs, money, property, prestige), which results in perceived challengers to the majority group’s status. Also argued by Blalock is that increases in income and wealth by the minority group compared to Whites should make the majority group (Whites) feel more threatened. Prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes and practices will be employed by the majority/dominant group in order to diffuse the minority group threat.

However, research examining the power threat thesis within the context of the juvenile justice system has shown mixed results. Some research has found that police within communities with a higher proportion of minorities have responded in a prejudicial manner towards minority youth, yet the bias was corrected in later stages of juvenile justice proceedings (Bishop et al. 2010). Other research has found that racial composition of a community did not have effects on the level of minority youth confinement.

In 1992, Frazier and colleagues tested Hawkins version of the power threat thesis (a revised conflict approach) who believed that the historical contexts of race and punishment should be included within Blalock’s (1967) power threat thesis. However, Frazier and associates argued that Hawkins’ thesis was directly opposite of numerous traditional conflict theories. In traditional conflict theories, a lower proportion of minorities allows the majority group to exert social control, yet Hawkins argued that a higher proportion of minorities would lead to more political and economic threat towards the majority group, resulting in the advantaged group to exert social control. Results from Frazier et al. (1992) supported the traditional conflict perspective rather than the power threat thesis, indicating White majority populations exert social control over minorities.

Theory Of Inequality And Social Control

An integrated perspective including structural contexts and racial stereotyping based on Tittle and Curran’s (1988) symbolic threat thesis, the war on drugs, and increased sanctioning of juvenile offenders was developed by Sampson and Laub (1993). They argue that the poor, underclass, and minorities will be perceived by juvenile justice decision-makers as threatening and in need of social control from residing in communities with high levels of economic and racial inequality. In line with Tittle and Curran (1988), Sampson and Laub (1993) emphasized that decision-makers view minority youth as aggressive, sexual, and lacking discipline. In conjunction with certain social psychological emotions of juvenile court officers and how these emotions interplay between the perceived characteristics of minority youth, feelings of fear and jealousy from juvenile court officers are manifested into beliefs that minority youth pose symbolic threats to public safety and middle-class standards (Sampson and Laub 1993, pp. 289–290).

The interplay between the war on drugs, the use of stereotyping, and disadvantaged structural characteristics further refined the symbolic threat thesis at the macrolevel. More specific, Sampson and Laub (1993) emphasized the evolving stereotype of minority males as drug users and dealers. Due to two trends within the 1980s (the dramatic increase in incarceration of Black males and drug offenders), this prominent stereotype leads to the overall effect that poor, Black men (especially those who were involved with drugs) would be subject to increased social control by the juvenile justice system.

Support for this perspective was found in Sampson and Laub’s (1993) examination of over 200 counties across the United States. Results indicate that measures of underclass poverty and racial inequality were significantly related to increase sanctioning of juvenile offenders especially within the stages of predisposition detention, and out-of-home placement. These results were also more pronounced for African Americans and to some degree, those involved in drug offenses. Additional support for Sampson and Laub’s (1993) perspective was found in the research by Leiber (2003), including suggestions for the refinement of the theory to encompass aspects of historical organization, sociopsychological processes, and the role of stereotyping involving the family and respect for the court. Additional research within the context of Sampson and Laub’s (1993) perspective is the work by Rodriguez (2010), who found that racial and ethnic biases exist throughout numerous stages of the juvenile justice system. Black and Hispanic youth were more likely to be detained compared to White youth. Also important, youth who lived in structurally disadvantaged areas were more likely to be detained, and indirectly were treated more severely in later stages of juvenile justice proceedings. These results show the interrelated nature of race, structural disadvantage, and the juvenile justice system. Other research has shown race to have an indirect effect on case outcomes through detention that further results in a cumulative disadvantage as detained youth move on from intake to adjudication to disposition and receive more severe case outcomes than non-detained youth (Holman and Ziedenberg 2006, p. 4). In other words, decisions made at earlier stages (such as detention) affect outcomes at later stages and in particular judicial disposition. This means that being detained strongly predicts more severe treatment at judicial disposition. From this, if racial bias occurs at earlier stages, it may reappear indirectly at later stages, masked by youth who are previously detained.

Microlevel Theories

In contrast to macrolevel perspectives, microlevel theories focus on the individual level of social psychological characteristics of juvenile justice decision-makers, including the roles that stereotypes and discretion play in this process. The following microlevel perspectives will be discussed in relation to minority overrepresentation: symbolic threat thesis, racial stereotyping within the realm of attribution theory, the liberation hypothesis, and the focal concerns perspective.

Symbolic Threat Thesis

As briefly mentioned earlier in the chapter, Tittle and Curran’s (1988) symbolic threat thesis focuses on the interplay between the characteristics of minority youth, and the emotions of juvenile justice decision-makers. The perspective argues that juvenile justice decision-makers may view minority youth as aggressive, sexual, lacking discipline, and other fear or resentment – provoking qualities. These emotions make juvenile court officers feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and unable to identify with the youth, leading to greater social control. These stereotypes of minority youth lead juvenile court officers to base decisions on perceived thoughts about juvenile offenders, not the specific behavior of the youth. Symbolic threats are connected to structural characteristics, minority threat, inequality, and public perceptions of gang involvement (Fagan 2010). In turn, while this threat is more symbolic (threat to middle-class standards and public safety) than real, it still may have an impact on how minority youth are treated within juvenile justice proceedings.

Differential treatment within the juvenile justice system could be based on decision-makers’ perceptions and emotional reactions to what minority youth represent. Tittle and Curran (1988) found support for this perspective, indicating that a larger minority and younger population resulted in different case outcomes of minority you who were charged with drug and/or sexual offenses. Research has also found that minority youth who are involved with drug offenses lead to differential treatment compared to other youth (Leiber and Johnson 2008). For example, Bishop, Leiber, and Johnson (2010) found that minorities charged with drug crimes were more likely to continue into further juvenile justice proceedings than similarly situated White drug offenders.

Attribution Theory And Racial Stereotyping

The reliance of racial stereotypes by juvenile justice decision-makers has been utilized as an explanation on how subjective thought processes influence case outcomes. For example, Bridges and Steen (1998) integrated theory and prior research concerning racial stereotyping and attribution theory to explain differential treatment of African Americans compared to Whites. According to attribution theory, attributions provide individuals with explanations for previous experiences and criteria for evaluating one’s own behavior, as well as others behavior, actions, and attitudes. Prior research has indicated that individuals who are more punitive or retributive in treatment philosophies have been more likely to blame the person. Bridges and Steen (1998) incorporated attribution theory, prior research on racial discrimination, and arguments that decision-makers develop and rely on past experiences and prior cases to influence case outcomes, and found support for their argument.

More specific, results indicated that probation officers used different types of attributions to assess delinquent behavior between Black and White youth. Involvement in delinquent acts committed by African American youths’ were seen by decision-makers as related to internal or dispositional attributions (e.g., defects of character, lack of responsibility), while White youths’ involvement in delinquency was related to external causes (e.g., disadvantaged neighborhoods, delinquent peers, poor school performance). Internal attributions compared to external attributions resulted in perceptions by decision-makers that youth were more at risk to re-offend, less amenable to treatment, and more dangerous, which resulted in longer sentences for Black compared to White youth. Overall, Bridges and Steen (1998) concluded that certain values and beliefs of juvenile probation officers lead to a stereotyped image of juvenile offenders that resulted in differential treatment throughout the decision-making process.

Research has also found that differential treatment with respect to ethnicity has also been found within the decision-making proceedings. Gaarder et al. (2004) found that attributions related to delinquency and victimization assigned to Hispanic females by juvenile justice decision-makers were linked to racial and gender stereotypes. In another study, the juvenile justice system responded to Hispanic females more severe than their White counterparts, finding that Hispanics from economically advantaged and disadvantaged communities are treated harsher than Whites (Rodriguez 2007).

The Liberation Hypothesis

Certain macroand microlevel theories that seek to explain racial and ethnic bias and disparities have an underlying theme that incorporates what types of outcomes occur depending on the amount of discretion by decision-makers. The basic premise of the liberation hypothesis is that it identifies certain conditions that result in decision-makers ability to “liberate” to and from certain legal criteria and uniformity. When involving adult offenders, jurors were found to be more likely to exercise discretion when evidence against the defendant was weak and a less serious crime occurred. In other studies, judges were less likely to exercise discretion involving cases of murder, robbery, or rape, but in less serious cases, both legal and extralegal variables influenced judges’ decision-making. Blacks who were convicted of less serious crimes were treated harsher at sentencing, while Blacks who were convicted of more serious crimes were no more likely than Whites to receive a harsher sentence.

The liberation hypothesis has also been examined within the juvenile justice system, suggesting that for more serious cases, court outcomes will be influenced by legal factors, while for less serious cases, court outcomes will be influenced by extralegal factors, such as race. Research suggests some support for the liberation hypothesis at the juvenile level; however this depends on which stages are examined (Guevara et al. 2011). In one study, minorities were more likely to be adjudicated compared to Whites (Freiburger and Burke 2010); yet another study did not find support for the hypothesis at the stage of detention. Overall, while some support has been found for the liberation hypothesis, the issue of why decision-makers liberate from strict legal criteria when evaluating less serious crimes is missing from the theory, especially the notion why increased discretion by juvenile court officers results more severe treatment for minority offenders compared to Whites.

A “Focal Concerns” Perspective

Originally, Steffensmeier and associates developed and tested a “focal concerns” perspective to explain discretion and increased social control within adult court processing decisions. This perspective has also been applied within the juvenile justice system. The underlying premise of this perspective is that judges have a limited amount of time and information about defendants and may rely on three focal concerns or attributions involving race, gender, and class stereotypes when making decisions. The three focal concerns include (1) the defendants’ blameworthiness and culpability based on the seriousness of the offense, (2) society’s concern to protect the community, and (3) organizational considerations involving available correctional resources (Steffensmeier et al. 1998). Even though the three focal concerns are interrelated, Steffens Meier and colleagues argue that judges do not have complete information about each. From this, judges exercise their own discretion and rely on attributions such as age, race, and social class while making decisions. In other words, judges develop a “perceptual shorthand,” where they rely on legal factors (crime severity, prior record) and racial stereotypes to determine case outcomes.

In order for this perspective to be applicable to the juvenile justice system, the focal concerns approach requires some modification. Compared to the adult system, the juvenile justice system has a dual focus of social control and social welfare of all youth, directing attention towards treatment and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. For example, the social welfare orientation of the system influences decision-makers to focus on extralegal factors such as school, family, and peers, when assessing possible treatment outcomes. However, just as adult court officers may rely on stereotypes when making outcome decisions, juvenile court officers may also rely on stereotypes concerning juveniles’ family, peers, and school situations. Utilizing a previous example, juvenile court officers who believe that single-parent family are unable to adequately provide for youth has been shown to influence decision-making (Bishop and Frazier 1996).

More recent, Bishop and colleagues (2010) integrated the focal concerns perspective with the “loose coupling” perspective. They argued that race effects may vary by each stage in juvenile justice proceedings due to numerous decision-makers involved and associated responsibilities and concerns. On the one hand, Bishop et al. (2010) contend that the influence of race will be more likely to exist at the loosely coupled stages of intake and judicial disposition; stages where multiple actors have a say, multiple goals of decision-making exist, are often tied to racial stereotypes, and discretion is prominent. On the other hand, at the tightly coupled stages of petition and adjudication where there are fewer decision-makers involved, legal factors and in particular the severity of the crime drive decision-making. In other words, discretion is constrained, and race effects are predicted to have a diminished role in decision-making. Consistent with the focal concerns and loose coupling perspective, results from Bishop et al. (2010) confirmed these expectations.

In addition, support for the focal concerns perspective has been found throughout numerous studies (Steffensmeier et al. 1998). Steffensmeier and colleagues (1998) found that young, Black males received more severe sentenced compared to any other age, race, or gender subgroup. This result confirmed the stereotype that young, Black, males are perceived as more dangerous, threatening, and unsuitable for release.

However, some researchers have questioned that the focal concerns concept is not a true theory but rather a perspective. On the one hand, there are no testable propositions, and the focal concerns concepts are underdeveloped and in need of refinement. On the other hand, empirical tests of the perspective have lead to supportive conclusions, and overall may only need some additional modifications.


In sum, traditional consensus, conflict, and labeling theories paved the way for the incorporation of more recent contextual and structural perspectives to better understand race and juvenile justice decision-making. At the macrolevel, the social control of minority youth has been fostered by structural and contextual characteristics, and stereotypes enforced by juvenile justice decision-makers. At the microlevel, juvenile court officers may be dependent on racial stereotypes, biases, symbolic threats, and internal attributions that have resulted in differential treatment and harsher sanctions of minority youth. In the final section, a specific policy implication called the disproportionate minority confinement/contact mandate (DMC) will be described in detail, in order to explain a present-day response to racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

Policy Implications

It has already been established that minority youth are overrepresented throughout all stages of the juvenile justice system. However, it was not until the 1980s that this occurrence was officially acknowledged as a “problem.” A policy implication and potential solution to this “problem” was the implementation of the DMC mandate. The following paragraphs will describe the history of DMC, specific stages within the mandate, results of present assessment studies, the overall effectiveness of DMC, and future research and efforts.

The Disproportionate Minority Confinement/ Contact (Dmc) Mandate


In 1989, the disproportionate minority confinement mandate (DMC) was passed as part of the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJCPA) of 1974. In 2002, the JJDP Act was modified, shifting the emphasis from “disproportionate minority confinement” to “disproportionate minority contact” requiring the examination of possible minority youth overrepresentation throughout all decision points in the juvenile justice system. This examination is continuously conducted throughout five interconnected phases of the DMC mandate. Throughout DMC’s history and continuing today, the underlying goal of the mandate is the equitable treatment of all youth within the juvenile justice system (Department of Justice 2009).


As stated earlier, the DMC mandate has five interrelated and ongoing phases: identification of DMC, assessment into possible causes, intervention, evaluation, and monitoring. The identification stage includes identifying and monitoring if and at which stages of the juvenile justice system DMC exists. More specific, the identification stage provides a count of the occurrence of DMC, as well as the extent of minority overrepresentation within different stages and jurisdictions. This phase sets the stage for the assessment studies of DMC by presenting descriptive data about the occurrence and location of DMC. At this stage, research has found that minority youth are overrepresented most often during arrest, detention, and waiver decisions. Compared to Whites, minority youth are also more likely to be petitioned and receive a disposition of placement outside of the home. From this, research aimed at identifying DMC has found that minority overrepresentation occurs at the beginning stages of juvenile justice system, which results in a cumulative effect of increased disparities throughout later case proceedings as well.

The second interrelated phase is the assessment phase which includes the examination of possible causes or factors that contribute to minority youth overrepresentation. The assessment stage examines in greater detail the specific decision points that DMC has been shown to exist from the identification phase. In addition, the assessment stage identifies certain mechanisms that are occurring in different jurisdictions that contribute to DMC. Research at this stage has found numerous contributing characteristics of DMC throughout many states and jurisdictions, which is described later in this section.

The intervention stage is based on taking information that is gather from the previous two phases and develop a comprehensive list of intervention strategies that have that ability to reduce minority youth overrepresentation. Several initiatives have been created and implemented across numerous jurisdictions and stages that center on direct services of youth, training of key personnel within the juvenile justice system, and to some extent, encourage change in the system itself. Jurisdictions are encouraged to rely on the results from the identification and assessment stages to guide decision-making concerning what specific initiatives and interventions should be implemented. For example, direct services attempt to address and provide at-risk youth with skill development, educational attainment, and positive relationships with family and peers. Prevention programs may include strategies that focus on familial relationships and educational deficiencies, while intervention programs seek to reduce antisocial behavior. Other types of direct services include diversion programs/services, advocacy, and alternatives to secure detention. Cultural diversity training is another strategy used to expose and educate individuals about DMC and racial bias in the juvenile justice system. Some examples of this type of strategy include training of law enforcement and juvenile court officers, participation in national and regional conferences, and day-long workshops. Unfortunately, significant system change within juvenile court proceedings has been a slow occurring process. However, changes that have been implemented include legislative reform, administrative changes, and structural and procedural changes that impact decision-making (US Department of Justice 2009). One of the most popular changes involving the DMC mandate has focused on changing detention procedures with an emphasis on alternatives to secure detention, which previous research has found that minority youth are more likely to be detained compared to White youth (Rodriguez 2010).

The final stages of the DMC mandate include the evaluation and monitoring of the DMC mandate. It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions that have been implemented on a continued basis. Overall, there are some interventions that have been evaluated, and results indicate that there has been some success at reducing minority youth overrepresentation (US Department of Justice 2009). However, relatively few known evaluations of strategies have been conducted, including a lack of systematic evaluation of certain interventions across multiple jurisdictions. Overall, it is the evaluation and monitoring stages that have seen a lack of implementation, which will later be discussed involving a discussion of the failure or success of the DMC mandate.

Results Of Assessment Studies

Recall that the second phase of the DMC mandate is the assessment into possible causes or factors that contribute to minority overrepresentation. Once again, the assessment process examines at which decisions points DMC occurs from the identification phase. From this, information will be obtained to help policy makers choose appropriate interventions and strategies to reduce DMC. Presently, results from assessment studies found that explanations for the occurrence of DMC center on the juvenile justice system itself and differential involvement in offending. It is also important to note that the results from assessment studies parallel and mirror empirical research in general of how the juvenile justice system responds to minority youth.

Within the juvenile justice system, four specific factors contribute to DMC. First, racial stereotyping and cultural insensitivity on the part of police, juvenile court officers, prosecutors, and judges have been found to further move minority youth into the system. Second, there has also been evidence from assessment studies concerning unintended consequences that impact minority youth through the implementation of certain laws and policies. Examples of these include zero-tolerance and transfer/ waiver adult certification of youths. Third, research has found that due to a lack of alternatives to diversionary programs, minority youth receive more severe outcomes and further movement into the juvenile justice system, ultimately resulting in placement in secure corrections. In other words, minority youth are not provided the same opportunities to participate in diversion programs in general, and specifically as an alternative to secure detention. Last, assessment studies have found that a lack of bicultural and bilingual staff and the use of English – only information materials lead to an inability to effectively communicate with non-English-speaking youth and families, resulting in a hindered ability to successfully navigate the juvenile justice system.

Assessment studies have also found that some of the strongest explanatory factors involving DMC are legal and extralegal criteria. Differential involvement in crime has been said to lead to a cumulative disadvantage that continues to hinder the life chances of minorities, further increasing the chance of continued criminal involvement in both juvenile and adult systems. Once again, four factors were found to be related to the continued occurrence in minority overrepresentation as offenders. First, educational deficits in the form of poor school attendance, lack of an emphasis on the value of education, disciplinary problems, and learning and cognitive abilities have been related to minorities committing more delinquency. Second, certain types of family dysfunctions have also shown to predict more harsh case outcomes, especially minorities who live in single-parent homes, reside in high-poverty neighborhoods, experience parental abuse, and have insufficient supervision. Third, assessment studies have found that many youth referred to juvenile court suffer from mental and emotional disabilities, often lacking the necessary services to address these issues due to family and financial problems. Finally, assessment studies have also considered certain structural characteristics of juvenile courts that may lead to minority overrepresentation. Results have found that juvenile courts in urban areas that are characterized by racial inequality, underclass poverty, and high crime rates are more likely to formally process, detain, and impose harsher sentences on minority youth.

Overall Effectiveness Of The DMC Mandate

Over the last 20 years since the implementation of the DMC mandate, key improvements and advancements have emerged. For example, research has expanded its focus to include numerous minority groups (Hispanics, Native Americans, etc.) in addition to African Americans. In addition, factors that decision-makers take into consideration when deciding case outcomes for youth (school problems, assessments of the family, and mental health issues) have been more closely examined than in previous years. Assessment studies have also begun to examine how certain factors such as age, detention, and technical violations by the youth may work to the disadvantage of some minority groups relative to Whites. Lastly, recent assessment studies have adopted a more macro-sociological perspective, inquiring whether racial and ethnic disparities may be explained or linked to the larger social or structural context of where individual courts are located. Stated differently, research on DMC has expanded its inquiry to attempt to understand if differential offending and racial disparities in juvenile justice processing may be mutually affected by underlying social, structural, and cultural context in which they occur.

While key improvements and advancements have emerged in the last 20 years, the overall effectiveness of the DMC mandate has lead to three different opinions and positions concerning its success (Leiber and Rodriguez 2011). The first position argues that the issue of DMC is misguided and instead should focus on the prevention of delinquency of minority youth. In other words, this position believes that resources and strategies should divert its efforts towards differential offending by minority youth, instead of attempting its previous efforts to understand racial and ethnic bias.

The second position believes that overall, the DMC mandate has failed to bring about change to reduce racial and ethnic bias, and therefore more aggressive measures need to be taken into consideration. Some researchers have specifically argued that a lack of benchmarks and the failure to change procedures in the juvenile justice system reveals reluctance from jurisdictions to change procedures and policies that deal with overall system issues. In some cases, evidence was found that the DMC legislation was unsuccessful at changing decision-makers view of relying less on race and more on legal and extralegal considerations. From this, OJJDP has been criticized about not doing enough to address the issue of DMC. Overall, procedural changes within the juvenile system have been too slow to occur.

A third position focuses on broadening the inquiry of DMC to include both the causal factors associated with juvenile involvement in offending and increased social control, as well as the understanding the perceptions of racial stereotypes that further disadvantages minority youth in the juvenile justice system. In other words, supporters of this position believe that efforts need to focus on both the conditions that contribute to involvement in delinquency, including factors that foster the reproduction of stereotypes and biases of minority offenders through the eyes of juvenile justice decision-makers.

Future Research And Efforts

There is still a need for states and jurisdictions to continue to conduct assessment studies. In other words, future research needs to continue and extend analyses to gain a better understanding of the complex intricacies involved in the relationship between race, crime, and juvenile justice system involvement. For example, research needs to begin to assess the relationship between race and gender (e.g., being a Black male compared to a White female in the juvenile justice system). Some research has suggested a community commitment to reduce DMC, through addressing issues including a truancy program as well as collaborations with school systems, law enforcement officials, juvenile courts, and political offices.

Future efforts should also continue to sensitize individuals working within the juvenile justice system that the laws in general, legal and extra-legal criteria, and system procedures may disadvantage minority youth compared to their White counterparts. More generally speaking, structural, neighborhood, and community changes need to be made to decrease the amount of minority overrepresentation but acknowledge that this specific recommendation will be a difficult and slow process to conquer. Lastly, additional research is needed to examine why minority youth continue to be overrepresented within the juvenile justice system. Even though it has been 20 years since the implementation of DMC, there are still numerous conflicting views of its success, as well as a need to continue future research and efforts.


In sum, while the overrepresentation of minority youth within the juvenile justice system has been a concern for many years, recent policy implications like the DMC mandate have attempted to identify, assess, intervene, evaluate, and monitor the occurrence and location of racial disparities within juvenile court processing. Through the use of traditional, macrolevel, and microlevel theories, researchers have attempted to understand how and why minority youth are treated more severe. Even though there have been gaps in the implementation and monitoring of certain DMC initiatives, progress has occurred. This proves that the DMC mandate is an ongoing and interrelated progress that in the end will hopefully lead to the equitable treatment of all youth, regardless of race and ethnicity.


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