Ethnic and Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice

Ethnic and Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice

The juvenile justice operations in the United States, just like in any country, play a central role in shaping major dynamics in the justice system as a whole, often having implications in every stage of decision making in the said circles. A trend of disproportionate youth representation in terms of color and ethnicity has been observed in the U.S. As children go through the system, overrepresentation rates also increase at every phase. With this enlightenment, one wonders if any efforts are being made to reduce the mentioned trend so as to prevent colored youth from being the majority in the setup, through striking a balance across all races.

The 17th February, 2014 mid-morning visit to a juvenile detention center in Peoria, Illinois, proved informative to a great extent, much the same way it was educative. It offered a chance for face-to-face interaction with the youth therein, as well as facility officials, including wardens and counselors. Personal perception on how things work in the system changed and more light was shed on a number of issues. More specifically, how ethnic and racial disparities are handled took a center stage.

In the facility, it was observed that a large number of those detained were African-Americans. It was explained that most of them had been held for exacerbated battery in one of the public schools nearby. Consequently, after learning more about the worrying trend, school officials and local juvenile officials with the aid of Models for Change initiative ambitiously launched a project to help curb fights and other occurrences on campus by applying principles pillared on Balanced and Restorative Justice. After implementation, the relatively low-cost interventions helped achieve more than 35 percent drop in school-based detention referrals for the youths. For the African-Americans, the reduction was 43 percent (National Association of Social Workers, 2010). This miniature project was to act as a spring-board for a wider implementation of Balanced and Restorative Justice Programs, as opposed to formal processes in schools and the community at large.

Before the visit, it was not thought that addressing ethnic and racial disparities by every state in the U.S. is a condition that that has to be met before any juvenile justice funds can be granted by the federal government. However, it was interesting to learn that most places have not gotten beyond making a mere study of the issue. The Models for Change initiative has assisted several jurisdictions in taking necessary steps to effectively implement data-based reforms to minimize disparities (National Association of Social Workers, 2010). The reforms largely revolved around collection and analysis of data, improved cultural competence, effective instrument implementation in objective screening, coming up with other alternatives apart from detention, better probation practices, closely working with the faith-based communities, collaboration with law enforcers, and better training for them.

Interaction with probation and visiting court officers at the center also proved informative.  It was learnt that, as a broader national strategy to address crime, juvenile punishment had been made more harsh than it was before. For instance, lawmakers had decided that 15 or 16-year olds charged with drug-related offences within a thousand feet of a public housing development or school shall be prosecuted in adult courts. Inasmuch as this law applied equally to young people across the state, the most harshly affected were colored children from Chicago (Crawford, & Boissoneault, 2012). Again, this still posed a greater challenge in racial disparity. Advocates have overcome criticisms and successfully campaigned for tougher laws, which, it is hoped, will help curb crime without compromising public security and relations with law enforcers.

Personal interaction with some of the juveniles led to a few inferences. To most of them, navigating through the justice system had been quite a challenge. It was especially difficult for their families. In addition, understanding the entire process had been puzzling, given the differences in linguistic backgrounds. True as it is, it often leads to misunderstanding and confusion in the entire process, and mistreatments are not new. It is for this reason that one would recommend that state courts serve relevant necessary guidelines to English proficient youths as well as their family members.


Crawford, C., & Boissoneault, L. (2012). Promise unfulfilled: Juvenile justice in America. New York, NY: International Debate Education Association.

National Association of Social Workers. (2010). The juvenile justice system. Washington, DC: NASW Press.