Racial and ethnic disparities weaken the credibility of a justice system that purports to treat everyone equitably. Across the country, juvenile justice systems are marked by disparate racial outcomes at every stage of the process, starting with more frequent arrests for youth of color and ending with more frequent secure placement.
The landmark 1988 report to Congress, A Delicate Balance,1 highlighted concerns regarding disparate confinement (those juveniles confined either pre- or post-adjudication), and led to an amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974 to track those differences through the Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC) core requirement. Later amendments, passed in 2002, expanded the concept of DMC, seeking to measure disproportionate contact beyond the point of confinement.2 The publicly reported data (required under the JJDPA) only measure the extent of the differences; they do not identify causes. DMC reflects both racial biases woven into the justice system (“differential selection”) and differences in the actual offending patterns among racial and ethnic groups (“differential involvement”).
What is “contact”?
Federal law requires data be collected at multiple points of contact within the juvenile justice system, including arrest, referral to court, diversion, secure detention, petition (i.e., charges filed), delinquent findings (i.e., guilt), probation, confinement in secure correctional facilities, and/or transfer to criminal/adult jurisdiction.3
What is not in dispute is that the differences exist. The extent to which jurisdictions experience racial and ethnic disparities has been exhaustively studied. A 2002 literature review found that two-thirds of studies on minority overrepresentation in the criminal justice system showed negative race effects at one or more steps of the process.4 Differences in arrest rates and processing of juvenile offenders are the residue of policies and practices that have disparate impact on communities of color. A litany of studies clarify the reasons DMC exists: selective enforcement, differential opportunities for treatment, institutional racism, indirect effects of socioeconomic factors, differential offending, biased risk assessment instruments, and differential administrative practices.5 The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reports that disproportionate juvenile minority representation “is evident at nearly all contact points on the juvenile justice system continuum.”6
Coalition for Juvenile Justice (1988). A Delicate Balance. Washington, DC: Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
Coleman, A. A Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Chronology: 1988 to Date, Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Coalition for Juvenile Justice (2010). Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources.
Pope, C., Lovell, R., & Hsia, H. (2002). Disproportionate Minority Confinement: A Review of the Literature from 1989 through 2001. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Nellis, A. (2011). Policies and Practices That Contribute to Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice, published in Parsons-Pollard, N. Y. (2011). Disproportionate Minority Contact: Current Issues and Policies. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, pp. 3-4.
OJJDP (2012). In Focus: Disproportionate Minority Contact, Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.