U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice Processing

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
REDPIXEL.PL / Shutterstock.com (see reuse policy).

Data have shown that youths of color are more likely than white youths to be arrested and subsequently go deeper into the juvenile justice system (e.g., Puzzanchera, 2021; Puzzanchera and Hockenberry, 2013; Sickmund et al., 2021; Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2021). Researchers have examined the contributing factors to these racial and ethnic disparities for decades, often testing hypotheses and theoretical frameworks related to differential offending and system biases (Leiber and Fix, 2019; Pope and Feyerherm, 1990; Pope, Lovell, and Hsia, 2002; Zane and Pupo, 2021). Most scholars acknowledge there are numerous factors at work and that this complex social problem cannot be reduced to either differential offending or differential treatment alone (National Research Council, 2013). Much of the work to address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system has been driven by amendments to the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) through the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Although some progress has been made and overall involvement in the juvenile justice system has been decreasing nationally, disparities continue to exist today, especially for Black and American Indian/Alaska Native youths (see Figures 1, 2a, and 2c).

Figure 1. Rate of Juveniles in Residential Placement by Race/Ethnicity, 1997–2019
Source: Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Puzzanchera, C., and Kang, W. 2021. Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement. Online. Available: https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/

This literature review covers racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. It begins with definitions related to racial and ethnic disparities, which are followed by how disparities can be measured and a description of the scope of the problem. A brief history of the Core Requirement to address racial and ethnic disproportionality in the JJDPA is then presented, followed by a description of a large body of empirical studies that attempt to explain why there are disparities in juvenile justice. A brief overview is provided on some of the efforts to address racial and ethnic disparities that have been captured by research literature, followed, finally, by examples of programs related to the reduction of these disparities.

Last Update: March 2022