Currently, a federal law requires states to reduce the disproportions of minorities in their juvenile justice populations. If minority overrepresentation is predominantly caused by racist behavior on the part of individuals that make decisions in the juvenile justice system, then these laws are appropriate. But if minority overrepresentation results from behavioral, cultural, or familial factors that lead certain populations into delinquent behavior, then the laws may not address the right concern. For example, research shows that having an open child welfare case increases the odds that juvenile justice workers will file a delinquency petition more than any other factor—even age, gender, offense, or race. And there is a lot of crossover between the two systems—minorities are involved in the child welfare system at twice the rate of their population portion, the same as their overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.
Additionally, in 2011, 56% of Americans living in poverty were minorities, even though minorities made up only 35% of the general population. Living in poverty has a variety of negative impacts on the mental and physical well being of children, many of which result in delinquency. These children living in poverty need support and intervention to prevent the cycle of poverty from pulling them into the juvenile justice system.
If minority overrepresentation results from the cumulative damage of poverty, violence, and abuse, then the steps to reduce minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system could actually cause more harm than good. While no youth desires contact with the justice system, that involvement may bring the attention of individuals and programs who can help. Unlike the adult system, which is designed to punish, the historical purpose of the juvenile system has been for the state to act as a parent. So if states exclude minority youth from their juvenile justice systems in an attempt to “fix” their numbers, they may prevent the youth from receiving the assistance and intervention they need.
Youth who experience trauma, neglect, and abuse (as child welfare statistics show minorities do through their overrepresentation within that system) have an increased risk for delinquent and criminal behavior. Some of these children, through no fault of their own, may face a lifetime of poverty, crime, and pain. They need support, intervention, and someone to give them hope. They need individuals who are willing to act on their behalf.
This issue of minority overrepresentation remains complex and multifaceted. And when you add the sensitivity of racial issues to that already complicated subject, the result is a very challenging problem. But neither disparity nor overrepresentation automatically imply discrimination. So, moving forward, policy writers, juvenile justice staff, and social workers must take three main steps to address the problem of minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.
First, we need research to obtain more accurate counts of juvenile populations and minority-representation. More accurate numbers will help increase our understanding of what, if any, discrimination actually exists. Without these precise numbers, we cannot know the extent to which minority overrepresentation may be taking place, and in turn, the extent to which efforts may succeed in reducing it.
Second, individuals working in the juvenile justice system (including the arresting police officers) need more awareness of cultural differences so they can take steps towards cultural humility. Through education and experience, staff can begin to change any existing biased attitudes that may impact their behavior.
And lastly, we must give consideration to the communities in which minorities may grow up in and the influence that may have on their development. Youth encountering challenges in their families and neighborhoods need early intervention and services to prevent delinquency so they can live up to their potential.
-Anna Snyder, MSW Candidate - University of Michigan