Race effects in juvenile justice decision-making: findings of a statewide analysis.

AuthorBishop, Donna M.

    Overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system is well-established. On a national level, minority youths are arrested in numbers greatly disproportionate to their numbers in the general population. While black youths comprise approximately 15% of the ten to seventeen year old population at risk for delinquency,(1) recent figures indicate that they constitute approximately 28% of youths arrested.(2) Further, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's (OJJDP) "Children in Custody" census, minority overrepresentation increases dramatically as one moves beyond arrest to later stages in processing. For example, minorities constitute approximately 62% of youths held in short-term detention facilities, and approximately 60% of those committed to "deep end" long-term institutional programs.(3)

    Quite apart from issues related either to the extent or causes of differential minority involvement in crime, a number of researchers have expressed concern about whether the juvenile justice system operates with a selection bias that differentially disadvantages minority youths. The research reported here is intended to add to the growing body of literature addressing that question.(4) However, this research differs in significant respects from past research because it focuses on differences between the processing of delinquency and status offense (dependency) cases, rather than simply the juvenile justice system in general. Additionally, we supplement our statistical analyses with qualitative data to aid in understanding sources of racial disparity.

    Our discussion is divided into two parts. In Part I, we report the findings of quantitative analyses conducted using official records of cases processed through the juvenile justice system in Florida. In Part II, we supplement and provide a basis for a more detailed interpretation of the quantitative findings, drawing upon in-depth interviews with system insiders--juvenile judges, state's attorneys, public defenders, and social service personnel. Based on those interviews, we explore the social and organizational processes underlying the findings reported in Part I.

  2. PART I


    Because the juvenile justice system consists of multiple decision points, it is essential that researchers track cases from arrest to final disposition through as many stages as possible. This is desirable for at least two reasons. First, decisions made at different points reflect the actions of different decision-makers--such as social service workers at intake, prosecuting attorneys at case filing, judges at court disposition--whose professional philosophies, organizational subcultures, and discretionary authority differ in ways that may render either intentional discrimination or institutional discrimination(5) more or less likely to occur.(6) The identification of more and less problematic decision points may facilitate both an understanding of sources of racial disparity as well as the development of strategies to reduce it.

    Second, if a researcher examines only a single decision point, such as judicial disposition, the researcher's analyses may underestimate or altogether miss the effect of race. If disparities occur at early decision points that are not examined, analyses of late-stage outcomes are likely to produce findings of no discrimination.(7)

    Another consideration guiding the quantitative portions of the research is the importance of estimating multivariate models that include controls for legally-relevant factors that might explain or justify race differentials in processing outcomes. At a minimum, we wanted to include as precise a measure of offense severity as the data would permit, as well as a measure of offense history that would take into account both the frequency and severity of individuals' prior records.(8)

    A final consideration guiding the quantitative analyses is the possibility that the effect of race might be conditioned by other variables. Frequently, those who have explored racial disparities injustice system processing have restricted their estimates of additive or main effects models, which can obscure substantial race differences in treatment. Suppose, for example, that nonwhites and whites charged with serious offenses receive similar dispositions, while nonwhites charged with minor offenses receive harsher dispositions than whites.(9) In this instance, an additive model might show little or no racial impact, while an interactive model would reveal a significant race effect contingent upon offense severity.(10)


      Data for the quantitative portions of this study were obtained from the Client Information System maintained by Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services ("DHRS"). The data set includes the total population of youths referred for juvenile intake processing throughout the state between January 1, 1985 and December 31, 1987. Because Florida law requires that all juvenile complaint reports be processed through the intake division, the data set is quite comprehensive and includes records of all police contacts other than those resulting in informal field adjustments, as well as referrals from parents, school officials, and other non-police sources.'! The case records were organized to permit tracking of decisions made at multiple stages in processing, from initial intake through judicial disposition.

      Because the Client Information System tracks referrals rather than individuals, we reorganized the data set around individuals so that multiple referrals of a youth to the juvenile justice system over the three year period could be chronicled and examined. We accomplished this by restricting our analyses to the last delinquency referral in 1987 for each individual, a procedure that allowed us to capture at least two full years of offense and processing history information for each youth. The total number of individuals at the point of initial intake is 161,369. This includes 137,028 youths referred for delinquent acts and 24,341 youths referred for status offenses. Because status offenses are treated as dependency cases in Florida, and because the actors/agencies and processing decisions involved in dependency cases differ from those involved in delinquency referrals, we analyze these cases separately.

      In the analyses that follow, the juvenile justice system is viewed as a series of decision points, each of which is simplified to represent a dichotomous contrast. Four stages are involved in delinquency case processing, two in status offense processing.

      1. Delinquency Case Processing

      2. INTAKE SCREENING: DHRS officials review all referrals originating from police arrests or from complaints by non-police sources. In addition to reviewing the facts presented in each referral, they are expected to interview the juvenile and his/her parents or guardians. They then make nonbinding recommendations to the state's attorney regarding the preferred method of handling each case. Intake officers may recommend that a case be closed without action, that it be diverted from the juvenile justice system for informal handling, or that it be referred to court for formal processing. We classify intake outcomes to differentiate between those cases closed without action or handled informally (coded 0) and those cases recommended for formal processing (coded 1).

      3. DETENTION STATUS: Decisions regarding detention status are made shortly after delinquency referrals are received. Detention decisions are made jointly by intake staff, law enforcement officials (when referrals are police-initiated), and state's attorneys. Juveniles held in detention for any period between initial referral and the ultimate disposition of their cases are coded 1; those released prior to disposition are coded 0.

      4. PROSECUTORIAL REFERRAL: State's attorneys decide whether a delinquency case proceeds to court. We coded prosecutorial referral as 1 in cases in which a decision was made to file a formal petition of delinquency or to seek transfer to adult court. Cases in which a decision was made not to seek formal action (e.g., no petition was ever filed or, if filed, a petition was subsequently withdrawn) are coded 0.

      5. JUDICIAL DISPOSITION: The final stage in the processing of delinquency cases modelled in these analyses is judicial disposition of cases. Although the court has a wide range of options, our analyses compare youths who were returned to the community (e.g., those ordered to do community work service, placed on informal probation, placed on formal probation) (coded 0), with those who were committed to residential facilities (e.g., youth camps, training schools) or transferred to adult criminal court (coded 1).(12)

      6. Status Offense Processing

      7. INTAKE REFERRAL: Status offenders also enter the juvenile justice system at initial intake. However, because status offenders are legally defined as dependents, their processing differs somewhat from youths charged with offenses that would be crimes if committed by adults. At the time these data were collected, specialized intake caseworkers were responsible for processing dependency actions. Because these are the same officials responsible for handling cases of child abuse and neglect, their orientations may differ from those of delinquency intake personnel. For example, dependency caseworkers may be more oriented toward responding to a youth's family situation, rather than to the actions of the adolescent. Consequently, they may be more likely than delinquency intake officers to choose formal intervention in cases where the family is seen as troubled or dysfunctional. Unlike delinquency intake decisions, dependency intake decisions are unaffected by the anticipated reactions of prosecutors; in status offense cases, caseworkers have sole decision-making authority to file a formal petition. The first stage in status...

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