Do Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Mandate Reforms Change Decision-Making? Decomposing Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System

Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Do Disproportionate Minority
Contact (DMC) Mandate Reforms
Change Decision-Making?
Decomposing Disparities
in the Juvenile Justice System
Ellen A. Donnelly
To reduce disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in their juvenile justice systems, policy makers
must alter decision-making processes through policy interventions. Effective DMC reforms should
ideally diminish the influence of race on processing outcomes and give more weight to objective
differences in cases such as charge severity or a youth’s prior adjudications. This study evaluates the
impacts of DMC interventions on secure detention and placement decisions. It introduces the
Gelbach decomposition approach to estimate unexplained racial differences in processing out-
comes. The method also illuminates the relative importance of case factors in reducing or aggra-
vating explainable group differences over time. Findings suggest DMC reforms can moderate the
effect of race on processing outcomes. When detailed, decomposition estimates show a greater
emphasis on prior contact for detention and legal factors and prior history for placement following
reform. DMC interventions may then help diminish unwarranted processing distinctions, and
decomposition methods can inform these policy debates.
racial disparity, disproportionate minority contact, juvenile justice reform, evaluation, decomposition
Since 1988, the federal government has required states seeking funding to address problems of
minority overrepresentation in their juvenile justice systems. The Disproportionate Minority Contact
(DMC) mandate presently stands as the most extensive federal measure to correct disparities in
justice processing. An extensive body of research shows that non-Whites are disproportionately
arrested, adjudicated, detained, and disposed to out-of-home placement relative to their represen-
tation in the general population (Huizinga et al., 2007; Leiber & Peck, 2015; Piquero, 2008; Pope &
Feyerherm, 1990; Pope, Lovell, & Hsia, 2002). Minority overrepresentation is found over time and
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ellen A. Donnelly, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware, 18 Amstel Ave., Smith Hall 322,
Newark, DE 19716, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2019, Vol. 17(3) 288-308
ªThe Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204018790667
throughout the nation (Ward, 2012). With a few exceptions, states must regularly take action against
issues of DMC (Hanes, 2012).
To meet the core requirements of the DMC mandate, policy makers must introduce remedial
efforts that change juvenile justice decision-making processes at numerous stages (Office of Juve-
nile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2014). Some studies have shown DMC interventions
change the aggregate racial composition or size of processed populations (Davis & Sorensen,
2013; Donnelly, 2017b). The most effective reforms should also change how youths are processed
at the individual level. Successful DMC interventions should diminish the effect of race on decision-
making, after adjusting for differences in youths’ characteristics, juvenile justice histories, legal
circumstances, and other case conditions (Leiber, Bishop, & Chamlin, 2011). Reforms may likewise
encourage policy makers to standardize decision-making in ways that give more weight to the legal
characteristics of a case and prior contact with the juvenile justice system (Maggard, 2015). Under-
standing the relative importance of case characteristics in creating racial differences before and after
reform can further help to determine whether DMC reforms change how decisions are made.
This study evaluates whether intervention on behalf of the DMC mandate reduces disparities in
juvenile processing by transforming decision-making processes. Using juvenile court records from
Pennsylvania, a state known for its commitment to DMC reforms (Donnelly, 2017b; Griffith, Jirard,
& Ricketts, 2012; Kempf, 1992; Kurlychek & Hurst, 1998), this study first estimates the size of
racial disparities in secure detention and placement decisions before and after the introduction of
DMC reforms targeting these stages. Next, the study identifies the contributors to racial disparities in
detention and placement using the Gelbach decomposition. The technique breaks down racial
differences into explained differences due to distinctions across racial groups in average case and
defendant characteristics, such as seriousness of charges, family status, or legal representation, and
unexplained differences due to unmeasured factors, such as racial bias (Blinder, 1973; Oaxaca,
1973). The Gelbach decomposition has the additional benefit of showing how the effect of race
changes with the inclusion of control variables due to its derivation from the omitted variable sample
bias formula (Gelbach, 2016). When d etailed, decompositions show the re lative importance of
specific factors in aggravating or diminishing explainable processing differences across racial
groups. Such detailed decompositions readily show how the roles of current case, social, or demo-
graphic factors shift as a result of DMC reform. This study contributes to a growing literature on the
effectiveness of DMC reforms (Leiber & Rodriguez, 2011; Mallett, 2018; Nellis & Richardson,
2010; Peck, 2016). More importantly, it offers th e Gelbach decomposition as a tool for policy
makers and scholars to estimate disparities and evaluate correctives attempting to amend inequalities
in juvenile justice.
DMC in Juvenile Justice
In the recent decade, overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities has been present at almost
every stage of the U.S. juvenile justice system (Mallett, 2018; Peck, 2016; Piquero, 2008). Of the
13.6 million cases processed between 2005 and 2014, approxi mately 54%of referrals, 57%of
petitions and adjudications, a nd 63%of placements involve non-White s. Blacks are especially
overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, accounting for 16.6%of the general youth population
and over a third of delinquency cases (Puzzanchera, Sladky, & Kang, 2017). DMC is not a new
problem (Mallett, 2018). Minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system predated the
integration of public facilities and steadily grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Ward, 2012).
Differential involvement in delinquency has only partially explained racial differences in juvenile
processing (Huizinga et al., 2007; Pope & Feyerherm, 1990; Pope et al., 2002; for exceptions, see
Tracy, 2005). For decades, scholars have shown extralegal factors such as gender (MacDonald &
Chesney-Lind, 2001), geography (Feld, 1991), living arrangements (Mooradian, 2012), and school
Donnelly 289

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