As "Get-Tough" Policies Extend Into Juvenile Courts, Minority Youth Bear The Brunt

A new article, published in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, is taking a look at the impact of "tough on crime" policies on juvenile justice practices.  Juvenile arrest rates reached a peak in the mid-1990s and have been decreasing ever since.  Yet despite declines in arrest rates, juvenile court case rates have been increasing--as much as 126 percent for drug offenses--suggesting a toughening of criminal justice responses.

The authors, Tia Stevens of the University of South Carolina and Merry Morash of Michigan State University, used data from two waves (1979 and 2000) of the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth to examine three research questions:

  • Do boys' likelihood of being charged with an offense and three types of court involvement (diversion, conviction, and correctional placement) differ for 1980 and 2000, net of the effects of age and self-reports of deliquency?
  • For both years, are probabilities of justice system interventions affected by being Black or Hispanic?
  • Are any 1980-2000 differences in these probabilities greater for Black and Hispanic boys than for boys in other demographic groups?

The researchers found that:

  • 28 percent of boys in 2000 reported committing at least one delinquent act, compared to 59 percent of those in 1980, and they committed about half as many delinquent acts as those in 1980.
  • Boys were charged with crimes in similar proportions in 1980 and 2000.
  • However when charged, boys in 2000 were less likely to experience diversion into precourt programming or counseling (13.5 vs 35.3 percent in 1980), more likely to be convicted (61 vs. 48.5 percent in 1980), and more likely to be sent to a correctional facility than boys charged in 1980 (38.3 vs. 24.5 percent).
  • These differences between 1980 and 2000 affected boys in every racial/ethnic group, but the effects were magnified for Blacks and Hispanics, so that "a black boy who told pollsters he had committed just five crimes in the past year was as likely to have been placed in a facility as a white boy who said he'd committed 40."

Some worry that harsher criminal justice responses to juvenile delinquency create a "schoolhouse to jailhouse" pipeline:
"Contact with the justice system can be devastating for the young. Criminologists have found that young people who are stopped by the police or arrested are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and to be arrested again in the future, and that youths with a criminal record are less likely to finish high school and college, compared to otherwise similar peers.  Taken together, these findings raise questions about the purpose of the system of juvenile courts.  "The juvenile justice system, as we know, was designed to be a separate system that was more about rehabilitation, and addressing the root causes," Robinson-Mock (an attorney who has represented children in juvenile proceedings) said. "In practice, it's highly punitive."

Read more: resources:
Prisoners per Capita (
Bureau of Justice Dynamic Data Tools (
CrimeStat III Crime Mapping Tool (
Frederique Laubepin

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