Assessing Variations in Juvenile Court Processing in Urban Versus Rural Courts: Revisiting “Justice by Geography”

AuthorSteven N. Zane,Jhon A. Pupo
Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Assessing Variations in
Juvenile Court Processing in
Urban Versus Rural Courts:
Revisiting “Justice
by Geography”
Jhon A. Pupo
and Steven N. Zane
Drawing on Feld’s (1991) “justice by geography” thesis, we examined whether juvenile court out-
comes and case-level influences on those outcomes varied across urban and rural courts. Using a
sample of 60,068 juvenile referrals across 66 counties in one state, we estimated direct effects of
urbanism on detention, petition, adjudication, and judicial placement, as well as cross-level inter-
actions between urbanism and several case-level factors for each outcome. We found limited
support for the hypotheses. First, findings indicated that odds of detention were significantly greater
in more urban courts, but indicated no differences in other outcomes. Second, findings also indicated
greater extralegal differences (race, sex, and age) in more urban courts—contrary to hypotheses.
Taken together, findings highlight the localized yet complex nature of juvenile justice processing and
emphasize the need for additional multilevel research assessing the role of other contextual factors
as potential sources of variation across macrosocial units.
juvenile court, justice by geography, geographical disparities, juvenile justice
It has been long observed that the administration of justice varies across different geographical
contexts (see, e.g., Eisenstein et al., 1988; Myers & Talarico, 1987). In the juvenile justice system,
such variation may be especially likely given the emphasis placed upon individualized treatment of
delinquent youth. As Sampson and Laub (1993) note, “a fundamental fact is that the juvenile court is
organized at the local (i.e., county) level, giving ris e to potentially important community-level
variations in juvenile justice” (p. 287). The implication, that similar cases may be processed differ-
ently according to jurisdictional context, has been referred to as “justice by geography” (Feld, 1991;
Krisberg et al., 1984).
College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jhon A. Pupo, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, 112 S. Copeland Street, 306 Eppes Hall,
Tallahassee, FL 32304, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2021, Vol. 19(3) 330-354
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040211009585
Almost three decades ago, Feld (1991) observed that “despite statutes and rules of statewide
applicability, juvenile justice administration varies consistently with urban, suburban, and rural
social structure and context” (p. 156). Despite this important observation, few studies have rigor-
ously assessed how juvenile just ice processing differs in urban and rur al settings. More often,
urbanism has been treated as a control variable in research assessing other contextual hypotheses,
such as minority threat (Zane, 2018) or economic threat (Rodriguez, 2010). Additionally, while
some studies have investigated how racial/ethnic and sex differences in processing differ across
urban and rural courts (e.g., Bray et al., 2005; Rodriguez, 2008), fewer studies have investigated the
differential influence of legal factors across court types. Following Feld (1991), however, we should
expect that urban and rural courts differ substantially in terms of their degree of emphasis on due
process and formal rationality, and in turn, how legal and extralegal variables influence decision-
making in different courts.
The present study seeks to contribute to the “justice by geography” literature by assessing how
juvenile justice processing differs across urban and rural juvenile courts located within one state.
Specifically, we first examine whether urban juvenile courts are more punitive than rural courts with
respect to four major stages of juvenile court processing. Second, we assess whether the effects of
key case-level variables—race/ethnicity, sex, age, prior record, offense severity, and preadjudication
detention—vary across urban and rural courts.
Weber’s (1954) work on law, legal procedure, and the link between urbanization and bureaucratiza-
tion provides one framework for thinking about how the administration of justice may vary across
social contexts. Weber evaluated legal systems on the basis of two dimensions: the level of formality
associated with a legal system and its application of the law, and the degree to which the system’s
application of law is rational (Savelsberg, 2006). A legal system’s formality has been defined as its
adherence to “strict procedures and evidence rules, often coupled with the relative autonomy of legal
institutions or legal personnel,” whereas rationality “refers to a legal system’s systematic, logical
derivation of abstract legal propositions that legal experts can reconstruct and consistently affirm
over time, rendering the system in general calculable and predictable” (Shamir, 2007, p. 2). In turn,
Weber distinguished forma lly rational legal systems fro m substantively rational leg al systems.
Formally rational systems are bureaucratically organized with special emphasi s on the uniform
application of formal rules of legal procedures in order to produce consistent outcomes. Substan-
tively rational systems, by contrast, are less formal, more autonomous, and not as bureaucratically
organized. Instead, these systems are characterized by increased discretion and reliance on informal
rules or norms, often based in custom and tradition. As a result, similar cases may receive different
outcomes when processed in substantively rational systems.
Drawing on this framework, early studies sought to assess whether court decision-making varied
according to levels of bureaucratization (see, e.g., Dixon, 1995; Hagan, 1977; Tepperman, 1973).
Much of this research compared the influence of legal, extralegal, and case processing variables on
court outcomes in urban versus rural courts, where differences were attributed “to the rationalization
and bureaucratic administration of justice found in urban courts as opposed to the lack of bureau-
cratic administration in rural courts” (Dixon, 1995, pp. 1164–1165). The assumption was that urban
criminal courts were more formally rational than rural courts, and decision-making in these courts
would be largely guided by legally relevant factors such as offense characteristics and prior record.
By contrast, rural courts were viewed as less formal and bureaucratized, reflecting Weber’s notion of
a substantive rational system. Here, decision-making would depend on legal as well as non-legal and
informal considerations such as social status (see Bridges et al., 1987; Dixon, 1995). A key
Pupo and Zane 331

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