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Understanding Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Probation: What Affects Decisions?

NCJ Number
Date Published
July 2016
93 pages

This study used information on probation actions for cohorts of youth in two major mid-state California counties in conducing an empirical overview of how cases in the juvenile justice system are handled at various decision points for various types of referrals and for different ethnic groups (white, Black, Latino, and "other").


The decisionmaking process that led to ethnic disparities was then described for each decision point, using documented policies and descriptions obtained from interviews with probation staff and administrators. The analysis focused on limitations and constraints on decisionmaking that resulted from laws/policies and resource availability. Analyses addressed decisionmaking patterns for individual youth within each county, with consideration of each youth's prior record of involvement with the juvenile justice system. The objective was to develop an empirical description of decisions for youth with various combinations of prior referrals and current offense severity. Disparities, if found, would receive additional qualitative exploratory research to aid in understanding these disparities in the context of constraints and limitations of decisions. After examining several years of probation referrals and thousands of cases, the analysis found little evidence of consistent, systematic disparity in how juveniles were handled by probation and the juvenile courts in either of the two counties. Both counties have focused on addressing ethnic bias in juvenile justice. These efforts have apparently been effective in rendering fair and equal treatment across ethnic groups. Consistent with earlier studies, probation decisions in the current study were found to rely heavily on offense histories and other legal factors, especially after the first referral. Graduated interventions - such as referral of the case to the district attorney, informal court probation, or formal wardship - seem more prudent as the number of referrals increases; this was found in the current study. 20 tables, 29 references, and appended management information systems descriptions

Date Published: July 1, 2016