Race, Ethnicity, and Official Perceptions in the Juvenile Justice System: Extending the Role of Negative Attributional Stereotypes

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 11, November 2021, 1536 –1556.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211004672
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Extending the Role of Negative Attributional
Shippensburg University
University of California, Irvine
Overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system has been well-documented. Although prior research has
frequently drawn on attribution theory to explain the sources of racial and ethnic disparity in juvenile court outcomes, the
key mechanisms (negative internal and external attributions) put forth by this theory have seldom been directly empirically
tested. Using juvenile probation file content (N = 285) that quantitatively captures court officials’ perceptions of youth, this
study examines whether negative attributions differentially influence diversion decisions for Black, Latino/a, and Native
American youth. Findings reveal that youth of color are more likely to be linked to negative internal attributions in com-
parison with White youth. Importantly, negative internal attributions in turn decrease the probability of receiving diversion.
Analyses demonstrate that negative stereotypes play an important role in how juvenile court officials form perceptions of
youth. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.
Keywords: racial and ethnic disparity; negative attributions; juvenile justice
There has been a long history of racial and ethnic disparities in the administration of
juvenile and criminal justice (Bishop & Frazier, 1996; Dannefer & Schutt, 1982; Leiber
& Fox, 2005; Mitchell, 2005; Rodriguez, 2010; Ulmer, 2012). Researchers attribute dispari-
ties to direct racial discrimination and to more subtle forms of discrimination, where
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors wish to thank Travis Pratt and Xia Wang for their very helpful comments and
thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this article. The authors also wish to thank the editors and anonymous
reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed
to Laura Beckman, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Shippensburg University, 321 Shippen
Hall, 1871 Old Main Drive, Shippensburg, PA 17257; e-mail: lobeckman@ship.edu. Correspondence concerning
this article may also be addressed to Nancy Rodriguez, Professor, Criminology, Law, and Society Department,
University of California, Irvine, 3305 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697; e-mail: Nancy.r@uci.edu.
1004672CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211004672Criminal Justice and BehaviorBeckman, Rodriguez / Negative Attributions and Disparity
historically based racial stereotypes of criminality can shape decision-making in the justice
system (Spohn, 2000; Tonry, 2011; Ulmer, 2012; Zatz, 2000). Many scholars draw on attri-
bution theory to explain how enduring criminal stereotypes continue to affect court out-
comes for people of color (Albonetti, 1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998; Rodriguez, 2007, 2010,
2013; Steffensmeier et al., 1998).1
Attribution theory asserts that when making causal inferences about behavior, court offi-
cials assign responsibility for an offense to either internal dispositions or external circum-
stances (Heider, 1958). Internal dispositions indicate greater culpability due to the perception
that offenders are less amenable to treatment and more likely to recidivate (Heider, 1958).
By contrast, external attributions view behaviors as a product of environmental and tran-
sient social circumstances, placing culpability outside of the individual (Heider, 1958).
Indeed, much evidence has been gathered in support of the theory’s propositions (see
Weiner, 2008 for an overview). Attribution theory has become a popular explanation for the
continued race effects observed in empirical studies because researchers contend that lin-
gering stereotypes of dangerousness and criminality lead decision-makers to implicitly link
internal attributions to extralegal characteristics (Albonetti, 1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998).
Importantly, attribution theory’s potential generality to explain racial and ethnic disparity
is limited in two ways. First, the main variable of interest—negative attributions—is rarely
directly measured. Instead, the standard method has been to identify a certain court outcome
(i.e., sentencing/disposition) and control for as many legal and extralegal (e.g., race, ethnic-
ity, gender, age, and class) variables as possible (Baumer, 2013). If race remains significant
or interacts significantly with other variables, then researchers assume that negative attribu-
tions are responsible for this relationship (see Fader et al., 2014; Leiber & Fox, 2005;
Rodriguez, 2010; Spohn, 2000; Ulmer, 2012). Second, and relatedly, attribution theory has
only been directly empirically tested on the differential treatment of Black youth (see
Bridges & Steen, 1998). Given the unique history of oppression against Black youth in the
justice system (Kennedy, 1998; Russell-Brown, 2009; Tonry, 2011), it remains to be seen
whether the core propositions of attribution theory also apply to Latino/a and Native
American youth.
Accordingly, we investigate two primary research questions in this article. First, we assess
whether race and ethnicity affect official perceptions of negative internal and external attri-
butions. Second, we investigate whether negative attributions influence the decision to divert
youth from formal processing. Examining the diversion stage is important because it is less
constrained by legal variables, allowing more room for discretion and influence from extra-
legal factors (Leiber & Johnson, 2008; Mears, 2012). Moreover, formal involvement in the
juvenile justice system has been demonstrated to result in harmful consequences that can
alter youth’s life trajectories (Petrosino et al., 2010; Seigle et al., 2014). To address these
issues, we measure court officials’ negative attributions by using juvenile probation file con-
tent from three counties in Arizona (N = 285). Our broader purpose is to examine the degree
to which attribution theory is generalizable across different vulnerable populations.
Implicit stereotypes of criminality are key to understanding how perceptions are influ-
enced by race (Tonry, 2011). Existing criminal stereotypes stem from the historical use of
the justice system as a tool to oppress and control Blacks, extending back to the era of

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