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Elizabeth N. Jones

Excerpted from: Elizabeth N. Jones, Disproportionate Representation of Minority Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: a Lack of Clarity and Too Much Disparity among States addressing the Issue, 16 University of California- Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy (Winter 2012)(178 Footnotes Omitted)


The overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system reveals a dissonance between our country's treasured philosophy of judicial equality for all and the cold reality of racial disproportionality. The field of juvenile justice is unique in that the objectives of the system transcend simple offender accountability. Here, judicial officers work collaboratively with law enforcement, probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and social workers to rehabilitate delinquent youth. A favorable public perception of the juvenile justice system hinges on the belief that children are treated equally, and without regard to their race or ethnicity. Indeed, when asked, most stakeholders firmly discount the idea that any overt discrimination exists in today's juvenile arena. The multitude of individual participants, government entities, and private agencies, coupled with the mass of proceedings involved in every juvenile delinquency case, seem to ensure a built-in system of checks and balances against any form of race-based evaluation of children.

However, statistics seem to belie this attractive concept. In reality, race weighs heavily on our country's juvenile justice system. One need look no further than the actual kids involved in delinquency proceedings. A quick glance at the numbers reveals a clear overrepresentation of youth of color. The percentage of minority youth enmeshed in our country's juvenile justice system far surpasses the percentage of minority youth in the general population. The rehabilitative agenda necessary to every system of juvenile justice requires that we not simplistically accept this figure as an accurate measure of minority youth's predisposition to commit crimes. Prevention and rehabilitation must continue to dominate the juvenile justice framework, and accepting that certain races are intrinsically prone to offend seems counterproductive to this end.

Further evaluation as to the authenticity of a color-blind juvenile justice system is warranted in part because the federal government itself considers that race is a relevant source of concern. Though each state is charged with implementing its own court programs and procedures, the federal government has provided participating states with a directed agenda - and money - through the vehicle of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a division of the Office of Justice Programs of the Department of Justice, monitors the states' observance of this federal legislation, and is responsible for proactively ensuring successful compliance. The OJJDP is a parent of sorts to the participating states, helping them create and implement programs in line with the JJDPA's goals and objectives. These goals are described as the JJDPA's core requirements, toward which the states must focus efforts and resources in protecting their children. One of these goals directly involves race. Specifically, states are required to address the overrepresentation of racial minorities in the juvenile justice system, or risk losing vital grant allocations from the federal government. This disproportionate minority contact (DMC) of minority youth with the entire juvenile justice arena has created its own cottage industry, with public and private state and local agencies both focused on this issue. Interestingly, of the four core areas of JJDPA concern, it is this section - the only one implicating race as a concerning factor - that has not produced results of consequence.

This discord between idealistic national principles and localized pavement-pounding truths reveals, simply, that race matters to the juvenile justice system. Race matters in a system where a disproportionate number of youth of color are locked up compared to the general population. It matters when even the appearance of disparate treatment due to the race or ethnicity of the child involved casts a dark pall over our deep-seated national concepts of an even playing field for all. It matters when statistics show that a Black child is three times more likely to live in a prison cell than in a college Race matters to the federal government, as can be seen in the large grants of money it bestows (and threatens to withhold) if states do not comply with the JJDPA legislation. Race matters to the individual states tasked with figuring out how to assess, prevent, and remedy DMC. Thus, the reality that race matters deserves more than an abject acknowledgment of truth. Governmental entities must work together to effectively implement all resources within their power in order to remedy this problem, and the primary resource currently backed by the federal government is the JJDPA. A color-blind system of justice that cares for our wayward children is essential. All children deserve an equal opportunity to achieve success.

The JJDPA promotes both an equitable justice system and the opportunity for juveniles to succeed. But this article queries whether the JJDPA is the proper instrument with which to seek racial parity for minority youth who are already in contact with the juvenile justice system. This objective has proven to be the one unrealized core requirement of the JJDPA, and perhaps this failure results from a mandate that strains the confines of what the justice system is capable of accomplishing. Effectuating change of this magnitude requires more than the threat of withholding money from one governmental entity to another; it demands more than creating a new item on a wish list of unattainable social aspirations. The transformation of the juvenile justice system's racial composition cannot be met through this piece of federal legislation, at least not as presently constructed. With the JJDPA up for reauthorization, the time to revamp our objectives and this legislation is now.

First, this article provides a brief history and overview of the JJDPA, highlighting three areas of potential concern. Specifically, the JJDPA's conflicting goals, outdated governing legislation, and unclear instructions to the states are examined. These target issues provoke the theory that requiring the entire juvenile justice system to combat DMC at specifically enumerated points of contact might be untenable and unproductive. Second, this article posits that these three focal points hinder, and may actually serve to undermine, the states from completing their mission of reducing and eventually eliminating the disproportionate representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. Various states are surveyed, and their limited successes in attempting to comply with the current DMC requirement of the JJDPA are noted. Finally, this article envisions a clear strategy: Capture children before they have any contact at all with the justice system, by focusing on precursor behavior to juvenile delinquency. A campaign of such consequence must involve not only the children at risk of delinquency, but also their parents. Collaborative parenting practices can begin with community outreach programs, which may also prevent entry into the system. This article suggests that there are resources outside of the traditional juvenile justice system that can influence positive outcomes in eliminating DMC, and that these valuable assets must be brought into the fold and fully utilized. Eradication of DMC is possible. An immediate reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, complete with the revisions suggested in this article, is imperative toward achieving this end.