Race in the context of this paper will be interpreted to mean a group of people who have similar anatomical features including skin color. A race of people can also share the same language, history and customs. Ethnicity on the other hand is the classification that someone belongs to a particular group of people who share customs, traditions and beliefs, for example Hispanic is an ethnicity. Juvenile delinquents are children under the age of eighteen who behave in a way that is antisocial or criminal. It has been noted that society perceives a person, more often than not, through their race or ethnicity. The other factors that play a major role in the social arena are one’s social status, gender, age, among many others. Juvenile offenders are subjected to discrimination based on these factors too. Race and ethnicity are the ones that feature prominently. Research has shown that judicial dispositions vary depending on the juvenile’s race or ethnicity. The question that then begs is who receives preferential treatment? Different correctional facilities treat juveniles differently. Preferential treatment is not generally afforded to one race or ethnicity. It varies from place to place.
Race and Ethnicity in the American Juvenile System
The American juvenile system is riddled with so many challenges and problems. Hagel (2001) reported that in 1999, American Indians, African Americans and other minorities made up for majority of the populace in the juvenile correctional centers in Minnesota. A study also showed that Minnesota’s juvenile justice system indicated that there was an overrepresentation of minority groups in incarceration. In the years between 1995 and 1999, cases of juvenile probation increased by 10%. The population of white probationers declined from 74 to 71% (HAgel, 2001).
It has been asserted that uneven or biased representation of the minority in the juvenile justice system has been a national issue for almost twenty years since the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was amended. The amendment required that states take reasonable measures to reduce unequal representation of juveniles from minority groups. This was a requirement in order to take part in the Federal Formula Grants Program. The Act also included the disproportionate minority contact (DMC) mandate which was set to equalize representation of juveniles. Under the DMC, States must establish the fraction of minorities who are confined and determine whether it surpasses their percentage in the general population. That situation is seen as overrepresentation and States are required to take all necessary steps to curb it.
Several reasons have been advanced as to why minority groups are more represented than their white counterparts. One of the reasons is because there is an increased rate of crime among youth belonging to minority groups (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). These youth are getting more and more involved in crime because of various reasons. Poverty is a major factor and there is also peer pressure. Parents who work two or three jobs also do not have time to take care of their children; these neglected children turn to crime as a way of getting attention or getting by. Critiques have however argued that the circumstances under which minority youth get into crime are not any different from those of whites. Thus there is no reason to afford minority groups preferential treatment.
Another motive for the disproportionate representation is the claim that minority youth are discriminated against in certain decision making points of the juvenile justice system. It is then suggested that it would only be fair if they are given more representation. It is assumed that some of them are only victims of a cruel justice system and had their rights violated.
Elliott et al. (1987) have also argued that there is discrimnation against minority groups at the initial stages of the juvenile justice system. That is to mean that the youth from minority groups are arrested more frequently as compared to the white youth. This has been especially in white dominated areas.
According to Reports from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1980 and 1998, more blacks than whites were arrested for major violent crimes (Hagel, 2001). These reports have also shown that youth from minority groups were more likely to have criminal records.
The issue of race and ethnicity can be approached from different points of the juvenile justice system. There are several points where different biased decisions take place and these are: arrest, booking, custody, court and incarceration. In the early years, discrimination at the arrest stage was rampant, with excessive violence being used on black youths. The justice system then was predominantly white and minority groups especially young black were seen as criminals. Harsher sentences were passed on them and they were considered not to have any rights. This painful past of the minorities in America has led to recent perceived leniency in the criminal justice system, and in this case the juvenile justice system. Some law enforcers put into consideration the race of a person for all the right reasons but it may be wrongly interpreted. Most people would not want to be branded as bigots and so they would find themselves going easy on a person of a different race.
Research has also shown that all other factors put aside, minority youth are more likely to be charged with a felony when the actual offence is a misdemeanor. These juveniles are also less likely to be represented in court by a private attorney. This is because most of them cannot afford the services. It has also been noted in various studies that the minority youth are likely to be transferred to adult courts to face criminal charges. The reason for this could be that the youth are seen as repeat offenders who cannot be treated like children.
The place where a crime is committed will also affect the legal outcome of a juvenile case. This is what has been referred to as the concept of ‘justice by geography’ where it is noted that there are significant differences in how cases are decided depending on the jurisdiction (Gottfredson & Hirshi, 1990). For example, there is harsher punishment in urban areas as compared to rural areas. This fact has played out to the disadvantage of minority groups who mostly live in urban areas. It has also been stated that in urban areas, minority females are more likely to be detained than their white counterparts.
Recent stark statistics have shown that there is still rampant racial and ethnic inequality when it comes to the detention of juvenile delinquents. In the year 1997, minority youth constituted approximately a third of the population in juvenile correctional centers but in the secure facilities they were up to two-thirds of the population. In this case there was a bigger population of black child offenders than any other race. It was also noted that black juveniles aged between 10 and 17 years were the majority population in juvenile correctional facilities. About 26% of the black youth are apprehended today and majority of these cases lead to incarceration (Hagel, 2001). Other statistics indicate that only a third of court cases involve black youth yet they are the majority of those detained waiting to be heard in court. Race and ethnicity make a huge impact on the juvenile justice system in some jurisdictions, more than others and it is time that the society takes action against these injustices as these juveniles will form the future generation.
There are numerous things that the society can do in order to eliminate racial and ethnical discrimination in the American juvenile system. The government can aalso do a lot to help alleviate this situation that could get out of hand if not well addressed. Key players in the juvenile system are also supposed to join in elimination of the disparities in the system. There should also be continued research to provide statistics so as to meet benchmarks and targets. Research is also important in order to enlighten those who do not know about the status quo. As a society we can also try and learn more about other people’s cultural heritage and race, in order to understand them better. This would help in avoiding stereotyping and discrimination.
There should be better youth enlightenment to teach them on the consequences of crime (Elliot et al., 1989. There should also be programs to reform former delinquents so as to avoid repeat offenders. Such programs can be sponsored by the government or contributions from the community. It is imperative that children learn from a tender age the advantages of obeying the law. Children should also be taught the importance of equality among all people in order to avoid raising a generation of racists. They can be taught to engage with children from all types of races so as to learn how to get along with them.
As a national remedy to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in the juvenile justice system, the government can implement policies and regulations to be strictly followed (Gottfredson & Hirshi, 1990). This kind of nationwide measure will be used to curb the vice in all the states and adherence to the policies made, should be made mandatory with severe punishment for contravention. Such policies would ensure that no particular group be they minority or majority is afforded preferential treatment. A good policy would also ensure that a proper record of a juvenile’s race and ethnicity is kept without fail. Regulations would also be in place to ensure that there is no open discrimination taking place. Monitoring of implementation of policies and regulations should also be done on a regular basis.
There should also be refresher courses for officers working in the juvenile justice system in order to ensure that they understand their roles and responsibilities and also the laws governing them. These officers should also be trained on ways of ensuring racial and cultural equality in the system, especially at the various decision making points like at the arrest stage.
The main issue to be considered is that prevention of racial and ethnic discrimination is better than curing an already ailed system. The issue of race and ethnicity is a social problem and it can therefore be solved by the same community that created it. If everyone is committed to the course of fighting disparities in the juvenile system then there will be a great chance of success. The community can also be involved in a kind of community policing program whereby they can report cases of racial discrimination to relevant authorities
Various studies have not been totally conclusive on the extent of racial discrimination in the juvenile system; however various researches on particular states have been used to make inferences. It has been proved that indeed many factors are used to prejudge someone in society. The issues of race and ethnicity have for a long time been featuring prominently. Discrimination based on those two issues is rampant and the dangerous part is that it is very subtle making it almost impossible to detect. The juvenile justice system as has been throughout this paper is greatly affected by these two factors. The thing that should be remembered is that these factors are extrajudicial and they should not feature at all in any judicial system, let alone one involving children. The system should only consider legal factors such as the seriousness of crime and the accused person’s history of crime. Each offender should be afforded equal treatment and punishment should befit the crime and not the race or ethnicity.