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Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is about a difference in the ratio of non-White kids versus White kids who are caught and punished for delinquent behavior (Figure 8.1). DMC has never been about Black, Latinx and Native American kids being more delinquent or criminalistic than White kids. DMC has always been about a racially skewed focus on the small number of juvenile crimes that are solved. The problem with measuring DMC is that we, as researchers and policymakers, are using bad data. We incorrectly assume that arrest and conviction rates give an objective, proportional picture of criminal activity, despite all evidence to the contrary. Like the recent racial incident in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), too often it is assumed that professionals are above having racial bias, be it purposeful or simply negligent. Given that there is overwhelming evidence of racial inequality—differential treatment of non-Whites—in all areas of society, to even suspect differential involvement we must first assume that race works differently in the justice system than it does in the rest of society. Arrest reports are not “clean” data but are written by the arresting officer, whose own career may be judged, among other factors, based on the reports he or she writes. One does not need to be a “bad actor” to frame oneself in a better light, rather that should be expected as a common bias.

According to 2015 FBI data, 46 percent of the violent crimes and 19 percent of the property crimes reported to police in the United States were cleared (Gramlich, 2017).

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We have attempted to present data—lots of data—related to disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system. These data, from police interactions, court processes and outcomes, and interviews with juvenile justice officials, all come from the same location and the same time period. Our data triangulation approach to understand DMC in one place at one time shows that minority and non-White youth are disadvantaged at every point in the process, from initial contact with police to court outcomes and decisions about incarceration. These findings are only meaningful to the extent the data are accurate or valid.1 Furthermore, the findings are more meaningful and useful to the extent the data from this one location and time period tells us something about DMC more generally. In this chapter, we examine these issues of data validity and generalizability of the findings.2 We address these issues, in turn, with a particular focus on the validity issues related to our self-report data of juvenile deviant and criminal behavior.

The self-report data from juveniles about their deviant and criminal behavior suggests that there are relatively few differences between White and non-White youths. Where there are differences, however, the differences suggest that White juveniles behave in ways more deviant and criminal (see Chapter 5). How accurate are the self-report data from the juveniles? Are juveniles truthful about their delinquent and criminal behavior? If not, are there differences between White and non-White juveniles? Much of our argument centers on the answers to these types of questions.

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How We Failed Children of Color

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) refers to the proportional overrepresentation of minority youth at each step of the juvenile justice system.

This book addresses the issue of color-blind racism through an examination of the circular logic used by the juvenile justice system to criminalize non-White youth.

Drawing on original data, including interviews with court and probation officers and juvenile self-reports, the authors call for a need to understand racial and ethnic inequality in the juvenile justice system from a structural perspective rather than simply at the level of individual bias.

This unique research will contribute to larger discussions on how race operates in the United States.

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Fifty years later, Martin’s quote is still an eerily accurate description of the juvenile justice system in the United States. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Native American juveniles are two and a half times as likely as White youth to be arrested rather than cited, Black juveniles are more than twice as likely to be arrested as are White juveniles, and Latinx juveniles are almost twice as likely. Our data—from Oklahoma City—are consistent with national levels of overrepresentation by race and ethnicity in the juvenile justice system. This overrepresentation has been relatively consistent since it was first studied. In 1970, four years before the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, Black juveniles were 2.3 times as likely as White juveniles to be arrested nationally (Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests, 2016). In almost 50 years, we have done little to lessen the impact of disproportionate minority contact (DMC).

This book examines how structural racism dramatically impacts the lives of non-White youth through their interactions with the juvenile justice system. Specifically, we aim to answer the question: To what extent is minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system due to differential involvement/behavior (i.e., non-White youth commit crimes at a higher rate) and to what extent is minority overrepresentation attributable to differential treatment (i.e., racism/racial bias within the system)? We hypothesize that non-White youth are over-policed, with the rationalization of over-policing resting upon juvenile justice officials incorrectly overgeneralizing the high rates of violent crime among a small number of non-White youth to include all or most non-White youth.

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In this chapter, we focus on the disproportionate contact and outcomes within the juvenile justice system. The justice system has so-called front-end decision points and back-end decision points. The front-end points refer to decisions about intake of the juvenile. These are decisions about what to do with the referred juvenile, for example, whether to file a petition (charge) or decline to file a charge. The back-end points refer to decisions about how to handle a juvenile’s case once a charge has been filed. These are the outcomes or disposition of the case, such as referring the juvenile to custody, dismissing the case or probation, to name a few.

Researchers, justice-reform advocates and policymakers have focused a great deal on disproportionate contact and outcomes within the juvenile justice system since Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDP Act) in 1974. This has resulted in a significant amount of research beginning with when a juvenile enters the system. However, the court system is much better documented than is the police part of the system. Once a juvenile enters the juvenile justice system, a record of every decision, action and outcome is recorded. By contrast, juveniles’ interactions with police are not necessarily documented. Many police interactions have no formal report or data recorded (see the discussion in the previous chapter).

A voluminous amount of available data shows a consistent pattern: non-White adults and non-White juveniles tend to have less favorable outcomes in both the front-end and back-end decision points compared with White juveniles (Piquero, 2008; Peck and Jennings, 2016).

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The previous chapters focusing on police encounters and court processes show a familiar pattern: non-White youth are overrepresented in the system and generally have worse outcomes compared with White youth. This overrepresentation and the disadvantage in outcomes are often attributed to the notion that non-White youth, especially Black youth, are different and behave differently. In other words, non-White youth behave in ways that are more deviant and more criminal. Proponents of this “differential behavior” argument point to police and court data as evidence that non-White youth are different. Those data show that non-White youth are arrested and detained at higher rates than White youth (see, e.g., Figure 3.6). Similarly, non-White youth are charged in juvenile court with more offenses and more serious offenses (see, e.g., Tables 4.2 and 4.3). Non-White youth would not be arrested or charged with more crimes if they were not committing more crimes, so the argument goes.

In this chapter, we examine this major tenet of the differential behavior argument. We assess whether non-White youth are, in fact, more deviant and criminal than White youth. We make this assessment using self-report data from juveniles. Elsewhere we make the case for using self-report data (see Chapter 6). Kaba (2020) points out that police officers spend most of their time dealing with non-criminal issues. Issues such as parking and traffic citations and noise complaints make up most of their day. Most officers make only one felony arrest per year (Kaba, 2020).

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As outlined in more detail in previous chapters, disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is defined as the overrepresentation of minorities throughout the juvenile justice system. By definition, overrepresentation implies a comparison of the racial and ethnic characteristics of those in the juvenile justice system to racial and ethnic characteristics of a general geographic location. In addition, DMC refers not to a single comparison but to comparisons of the racial and ethnic makeup at multiple points—contact or decision points—in the juvenile justice system. As such, we examine race and ethnicity differences at three key points in the juvenile justice system to assess the extent of DMC. These points roughly correspond to the typical progression through the system: police contact, intake and detention, and the legal outcome or status of the referral. These decision points have also been described as “front-end” and “back-end” decision points (Charish et al, 2004). Front-end decisions refer to decisions made by police to arrest or detain. Back-end decisions refer to decisions made by the juvenile courts. These decisions include all adjudicatory and dispositional decisions. Between the front- and back-end decisions are those decisions made by court officials such as district attorneys whether to refer juveniles to the courts.

Figure 3.1 is a graphical depiction of the typical progression through the juvenile justice system. The figure illustrates several important features of the juvenile justice system. First, the simple progression through the system typically begins with police contact, followed by intake and detention, followed by the legal status or outcome of a case.

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In this chapter, we look at two opposing explanations for DMC. One, differential involvement, states that DMC is due to minority youth committing crimes at a much higher rate than White youth, which, in turn, means DMC is simply a reflection of higher rates of criminality, rather than systemic racism. The other explanation is differential treatment, which, consistent with both historical and current treatment of non-White youth, suggests that differential treatment is the cause of DMC, just as differential treatment impacts non-White youth in all areas of American society. Borowski’s definition of Occam’s Razor best describes the focus of this chapter, in which we outline that DMC appears strikingly similar to all other areas of racism, and differential treatment should be presumed the likely cause of DMC according to the principle of removing unnecessary assumptions when distinguishing between two theories.

According to the US Census, the following percentages of the population in 2019 identified as the following racial/ethnic categories:

Latinx/Hispanic 18.5 percent

Black/African American alone 13.4 percent

Asian alone 5.9 percent

Native American alone 1.3 percent

White alone 76.3 percent

Nat. Hawaiian/Pac Islander alone 0.2 percent

Two or more races 2.8 percent

White alone, not Hispanic/Latinx 60.1 percent

These percentages represent those who identified solely as one of the racial/ethnic groups.

If race does not matter, we would expect about 13 percent of CEOs to be Black, 19 percent to be Latinx, 6 percent to be Asian, 1 percent to be Native American, 76 percent to be White (because of rounding, this totals more than 100 percent) and, for ethnicity, 19 percent to be Latinx.

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Elija Anderson’s (1999) four-year ethnographic study of a poor Black area in Philadelphia, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, should be required reading for anyone with an interest in race and inequality. Anderson explains high rates of violence among Black juveniles in high poverty neighborhoods as resulting from decades of area economic disadvantage, a disconnection and isolation from most of American society, and experienced discrimination, resulting in antisocial behavior and even violence. Based on his analysis, he categorizes individuals and families into two types or groups: decent or street. Decent people are those who have hope and strive to achieve a better life. These are the folks who embrace middle-class values. Street people are those who have lost hope for achieving middle-class values and adopt the oppositional Code of the Street, where they tend to react violently when faced with disrespect or threat and celebrate their antisocial and criminalistic values.

All of this is relevant to disproportionate minority contact (DMC). Specific to our main argument, Anderson describes most folks in these poorest of the poor, extremely violent neighborhoods as part of the group he identifies as “decent.” Most of the folks embrace mainstream values. In fact, only the most extreme of the “street” folks are typically the violent criminals. Anderson’s (1999) work suggests that in the most disadvantaged areas, most folks embrace mainstream values. In addition, less than 30 percent of Blacks live under the poverty line, and clearly not all of those live in ghettos like the ones studied by Anderson.

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