Deservingness and Punishment in Juvenile Justice: Do Black Youth Grow Up “Faster” in the Eyes of the Court?

Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Deservingness and Punishment in
Juvenile Justice: Do Black Youth
Grow Up “Faster” in the Eyes
of the Court?
Steven N. Zane
, Joshua C. Cochran
, and Daniel P. Mears
The present studyinvestigated whetherrace moderates the effect ofage on juvenile court dispositions
in ways that illuminate a subtler formof racial disparities than has been previously identified. Drawing
on prior theory and research, we hypothesize that at young ages, virtually all youth are perceived as
children and met with treatment-oriented responses. As youth grow older, however, we anticipate
that Black defendants will be perceived as more culpable and more deserving of punishment than
similarly-aged White defendants and that disposition patterns will reflect that differential perception.
Using data fromthe Florida Department of JuvenileJustice (N¼124,075), the presentstudy examines
a five-category disposition using a multinomial regression model with interactions between age and
race variables.We found mixed support for the hypotheses. On theone hand, compared to similarly-
aged White defendants, Black defendants became significantly less likely to be diverted—the most
treatment-oriented disposition—and significantly more likely to be transferred—the most punitive
disposition—as age increased. On the other hand, race did not moderate age effects for dismissal,
probation, or commitment. There is thus some evidence that age may be racialized for some dis-
positions, but not others. Implications for research and policy are discussed.
age, racial disparities, attributions, juvenile justice, juvenile offenders
The juvenile court exists for a seemingly straightforward reason: children are different from adults in
ways that have led society to view them as less deserving of punishment and more deserving of
rehabilitative intervention. Even English common law, which extended to the United States,
acknowledged the diminished culpability of young offenders. Some youth were perceived as lacking
capacity to commit crimes, while those perceived to possess capacity were processed in the criminal
College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Steven N. Zane, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040211045110
2022, Vol. 20(1) 41 –62
42 Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 20(1)
justice system. The juvenile court replaced this traditional approach with one that views young
offenders as fundamentally different from adult criminals. It serves as a treatment-oriented institu-
tion, one based in the social welfare vision of progressive reformers in the late 19th century
(Tanenhaus, 2004). It stands in direct contrast to the criminal justice system, which functions
primarily to punish wrongdoers (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1993).
This bifurcated approach involves a “difference in kind” assumption: youth are fundamentally
dissimilar from adults in their ability to make choices and be held responsible for them, so they must
be treated differently when they commit crimes (Ainsworth, 1995). As a practical matter, some line
of demarcation between child and adult is necessary to have a distinct juvenile court. There is,
though, a related implication—within the juvenile court, age may function to further differentiate
youth. More specifically, it may provide a foundation on which court actors can categorize youth as
“children” most deserving of court attention.
Viewed in this light, age may provide a basis for attributing to a particular youth the status of
“child.” From this perspective, young defendants are more likely to be perceived as true children:
less culpable and more amenable to change. They are, therefore, deemed to be less deserving of
punitive responses and to be better candidates for rehabilitative interventions. Similarly, they are
more likely to receive a “hands off” response, under the logic that any juvenile justice intervention
may cause more harm than good (Gatti et al., 2009). Older defendants, on the other hand, are likely
to be perceived as more culpable due to their proximity to adulthood. They are therefore more likely
to receive punitive responses than treatment-oriented ones. They also may be more likely to have
their cases dismissed entirely, under the logic that, given their proximity to adulthood, a traditional
juvenile court response is inappropriate. In turn, youth in the middle of the age spectrum amount to
“true juveniles” because they are viewed as the court’s focal population, and they would be most
likely to receive traditional juvenile court responses (Mears et al., 2014).
But does age act as an attribution of culpability equally for all youth? Others have noted that
Black youth were largely excluded from the treatment-oriented focus of the early juvenile court, and
instead treated as adults (Ward, 2012). One possibility is that Black youth were not perceived as
children warranting “care and discipline” from the state in its role as parens patriae. Indeed, others
have found that Black youth today are perceived as older than similarly aged White youth (Goff
et al., 2014). In addition, views about the causes of crime may also differ depending on the youth’s
race, with crime among Black youth offending attributed to “internal causes” such as personality
defects while crime among White youth is attributed to “external causes” such as social environment
(Bridges & Steen, 1998). One extension of this logic is that differential treatment of White and Black
youth may stem from differential age attribution.
In what follows, we hypothesize that race and age are intertwined in punishment decisions. While
all juvenile offenders are subject to attributions of deservingness according to age, we predict that
Black youth “age out” of treatment-oriented responses earlier than White youth, resulting in racial
disparities that increase with age. Such patterns would suggest that the court relies on both age and
race to determine which youth are “true juveniles” for whom treatment-oriented intervention is most
appropriate. In examining these ideas, we seek to respond to calls by scholars to explore the more
nuanced ways in which racial disparities may surface in court processes and punishment decisions
(e.g., Baumer, 2013; Feld, 2017; Kurlychek & Johnson, 2010; Spohn, 2015).
Age, Perceptions of Culpability, and the Formation of the Juvenile Court
The origins of the American juvenile court can be traced to the Houses of Refuge in New York,
Boston, and Philadelphia in the 1820s. These were new institutions that emerged as a means of
2Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice XX(X)

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