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Disparities in Juvenile Sentencing Between Minorities


Disparities in juvenile sentencing are prevalent in the United States’ judicial system. Many juveniles from minority backgrounds receive severe punishments and are unfairly treated during sentencing. According to Leiber and Peck (2013), disparities are predominant in major crimes. Leiber and Peck (2013) aver, “The probability of a minority receiving juvenile life without parole is higher than the possibility of a White youth getting the same” (p. 331). In many instances, the white and minority youths commit similar crimes but receive different sentences. A study conducted in 2013 found that over 1,755 teens were serving life without parole across the United States (Leiber & Peck, 2013). The research further discovered that 77% of those serving life sentences were from minority communities (Leiber & Peck, 2013). The prejudiced decision-making in the different stages of judicial proceedings contributes to the unbalanced representation of minorities, especially African-Americans, in the juvenile justice system. The goal of this article is to offer a brief explanation of how the various stages of judicial proceedings contribute to the overrepresentation of minority youths. They include apprehension and processing, intake, detention, judicial disposition, and transfer to adult courts.

Minority Overrepresentation

In spite of African-Americans having the smallest percentage of the young population, they are disproportionately represented in the arrest phase. Information obtained from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program showed that over 1.7 million youths were arrested in 2009 (Davis & Sorensen, 2013a). At least 31% of the youths had African-American backgrounds (Davis & Sorensen, 2013a). The report showed the underrepresentation of white kids. An analysis of the number of arrests per 1000 juveniles showed significant disparities between minority and non-minority youths (Davis & Sorensen, 2013a). At least 99 in every 1000 African-American teens were arrested for one crime or another (Davis & Sorensen, 2013a).

Conversely, only 45 per 1000 adolescents of White origin were detained for similar crimes (Davis & Sorensen, 2013a). Additionally, African-American youths are at a higher chance of being arrested than their White counterparts. More than 1.5 million juveniles were taken to court in 2009. Davis and Sorensen (2013a) hold that 95% of the African-Americans who had been arrested were arraigned in court. On the other hand, 85% of Whites were taken to court. One wonders why a small number of Whites is arraigned in court. It is clear that law enforcers use other means to resolve cases involving White offenders. However, prejudice amid law enforcement agencies does not allow them to resolve cases involving minorities outside the court. They end up arresting minors for offenses that could be resolved informally.

There are significant disparities in the outcomes of the cases presented before courts. Davis and Sorensen (2013a) aver, “26% of cases involving Blacks result in detention between the stages of arrest and judicial disposition, compared to 23% of cases involving Native Americans, 21% involving other races, and 18% involving Whites” (p. 307). The high number of arrests results from the decisions made in the subsequent stages of judicial proceedings. Mostly, law enforcers are compassionate towards Whites. Thus, they resolve to warn White offenders or use alternative means to punish them for their crimes. Conversely, the officers are unfair to African-American teenagers. They pass judgments based on prejudices, leading to detention of most minority offenders.

Racial disparities in the extent of formal charging are also predominant in the arbitration phase. Davis and Sorensen (2013a) allege that 60% of the cases that involve minority youths culminate in formal charging. On the other hand, 40% of the cases concerning the Whites result in formal sentencing. In spite of the small difference in the rate of official charging at this phase, overrepresentation of minority youths is still evident. The majority of the teenagers who are formally charged are found guilty of their crimes. Correction effect is the primary reason behind limited racial differences at the arbitration stage. It refers to a situation where an ethnic group records a low level of a specific outcome at one phase compared to the previous steps.

Racial disparities are apparent even in the final phases of judicial disposition. Davis and Sorensen (2013b) hold, “The relative rate of Blacks to Whites regarding out-of-home placement is 1.2, and the same rate applies to Native Americans” (p. 123). The racial discrepancy in judicial disposition implies that minority youths, especially African-Americans, receive severe punishments. A high number of the minority youths are detained out of home compared to the White teenagers. Adjudicated juveniles from the minority communities continue to be sent away from their homes at a higher rate than the Whites. The notion that family structure contributes to minors engaging in crimes results in most African-American youths being sent away from their parents. It is imperative to appreciate that many minors engage in crimes due to peer influence and not family structure. Otherwise, there would be no cases of White minors engaging in crimes because they are deemed to come from “stable” families. Research indicates that ethnic inequalities in juvenile sentencing are most common at the initial stages of the judicial system. The problem affects mainly the African-American youths. The law enforcement agencies have a perception that detention is the best way of curbing juvenile crimes amid the minorities. Therefore, they compile negative report to ensure that minority offenders are detained. Disadvantages that arise in the initial phases of the legal system are to blame for the minority overrepresentation evident in the back end.

Race Disparity in Offending

As mentioned earlier, African-American youths are at a higher risk of being detained than Whites. The risk spreads across all forms of crimes. Information obtained from the Uniform Crime Reporting indicates that twice as many Blacks as Whites are arrested for property crimes (Davis & Sorensen, 2013b). It does not imply that a higher number of Blacks than Whites commit property crimes. However, the arresting officers are reluctant to detain White offenders for these crimes. Conversely, African-Americans are at a higher risk of being incarcerated for violent crimes than Whites. It does not imply that only the Blacks engage in violent crimes. Bigotry amid law enforcers results in many Whites going scot-free for violent crimes, particularly if perpetrated against minorities.

The decision to refer, release, stop or arrest youths depends on numerous factors that transcend the type of the felony and its repercussions. They include the organization of the police department, patrolling patterns, objectives of the police department, and racial profiling among others. The official arrest data show prejudice in decision-making amid the law enforcers. Some studies put forward a differential offending argument from the available data. A comparison between data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and UCR showed that juveniles from minority groups are overrepresented in offenses such as physical attack, burglary, and rape (Davis & Sorensen, 2013b). The findings revealed the presence of differential selection bias, which works to the detriment of the minority youths. Most judicial officers believe that African-Americans are aggressive in nature. Thus, they are likely to engage in violent crimes like burglary and assault. The perception that Whites are friendly in temperament contributes to the law enforcers being compassionate when dealing with offenders.

An examination of data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Incident-Based Reporting System does not provide proof that racial bias influences the resolution to arrest. The analysis shows that White Juvenile delinquents are at a higher chance of being detained than their minority counterparts, particularly for brutal offenses. Nonetheless, the report reveals an indirect bias influence on the detention of minority juvenile delinquents, particularly those that commit crimes against Whites. Researchers have used information from the National Youth Survey to determine possible racial biases in delinquent offending. Donnelly (2015) argued that a high number of African-American youths confessed to having engaged in violent behaviors compared to Hispanic juveniles. A small number of White children admitted a significant connection to violent behavior. Donnelly (2015) claimed, “Although the self-reported race differences in violent offending across different studies are substantial, they are not nearly as great as those found in police arrest data” (p. 49). It implies that self-reported data does not reveal the exact extent of racial disparity. Absence of significant data of White offenders who confess to engaging in violent crimes shows bias amid the law enforcers. Police do not compile most data regarding White offenders who confess to having committed violent crimes. Instead, they book the offenders in an informal manner, making it hard to account for the number of Whites detained for violent crimes.

The results from self-report surveys and victimization data reveal that more youths from minority groups commit violent crimes than Whites. The information is erroneous and meant to paint a picture that more Blacks than Whites engage in violent crimes. Report from the Monitoring the Future showed that a high number of White youths engaged in drug-related offenses (Donnelly, 2015). Indeed, African-Americans recorded the lowest level of drug abuse. There exist discrepancies in racial disparities between data obtained from formal police arrest and self-reported studies. Information from police reveals significant overrepresentation of minority youths in theft, vandalism, and weapons. Comparison of self-report and victimization data with official arrests showed a significant correlation between race and crime. The analysis showed that minority youth, especially African-Americans, engaged in serious crimes. The findings explicate the perceptible unbalanced representation of minority youths in the justice system. Differential selection and offending demonstrate the link between ethnicity and juvenile justice system procedures.

Racial Selection Bias

The juvenile court is premised on parens patriae, which influences decision-making. According to Donnelly (2015), judges use legal guidelines to make ruling in criminal justice trials that involve grownups. Donnelly (2015) insists that judges consider extralegal factors like family background and age of an offender when making decisions. Differential participation in crimes often contributes to disparities between minorities and non-minorities apprehension and juvenile court conclusions. Notwithstanding the extralegal and legal considerations, ethnicity and race influence court and law enforcers’ decisions. The claim that legal factors like nature of the crime, instead of race, influence decision-making is untrue. One wonders why many African Americans are arrested for crimes that require resolving informally. On the other hand, most Whites are warned and released for similar crimes.

It is evident that procedures, laws, and legal and extralegal norms are racially stained because they favor non-minorities. Even though blatant or deliberate prejudice may still exist, impacts of ethnicity and race on law enforcers’ decisions to apprehend and proceedings outcomes seem to be subliminal, subtle, or hidden. For instance, the analysis of offender’s family background, level of maturity, and school performance may have dire consequences on minority youths compared to non-minority teens. Past studies show that White teenagers are regarded as more susceptible, undeveloped, and acquiescent to treatment than African-American youths who commit similar crimes (Donnelly, 2015). Justifiable criteria like age or family assessments have negative impacts on the outcomes of litigations that involve African-Americans and boys compared to Whites and girls.

The majority of the existing literature argues that legal and extralegal aspects single-handedly cannot contribute to racial differences in participation in the juvenile justice system. The findings support the ethnic selection bias viewpoint, which holds that ethnicity and race are important. Feinstein (2015) found that at least 66% of studies conducted between 1970 and 1988 concluded that minority teenagers, mainly of African-American background, received severe punishments for crimes committed compared to White offenders. The judges are sympathetic to White offenders. As a result, they issue short sentences to the offenders as a way to correct them.

The Phases of Juvenile System

It is imperative to analyze the contribution of race to decision-making in the five primary aspects of the juvenile court. They are apprehension, intake, confinement, judicial temperament, and transfer to grown-up court. Disparities in juvenile sentencing are prominent in these stages. The minority youths suffer cumulative disadvantages along these steps, which have a significant influence on the judicial outcomes.

Apprehension and Juvenile Processing

Race and ethnicity have significant impacts on juvenile arrests. While incidences relating to severe and aggressive felonies limit officers’ discretion, many police-suspect encounters comprise minor crimes where a lot of prudence and possible prejudice influence the decision to apprehend. Additionally, in a culture where discrimination is widespread, and evil is frequently associated with economic status and race, police may make decisions based on stereotypes. Stereotyping leads to minority youth and the underprivileged being vulnerable to arrests.

The available research on police-juvenile encounters reveals that race and ethnicity have indirect impacts on the arrest of minor offenders. The youth’s demeanor influences police decision (Feinstein, 2015). Youths who seem uncooperative and cruel are at a high likelihood of being arrested. Minority youths, particularly Blacks often exhibit behaviors that prompt law enforcement agencies to regard them as troublemakers. At times, they result to aggressiveness due to mistreatment by law enforcers. Unfortunately, the justice system does not consider the circumstances that led to the minors being uncooperative or aggressive. Instead, it treats hostile behaviors as precursors of criminal inclination and an indication that the minors may get worse. Thus, the decision to incarcerate the minors is meant to rehabilitate them. The demeanor of a minor at the time of arrest is not sufficient to warrant detention. The judges should evaluate other factors like the history of the offender and circumstances that led to arrest.


Intake serves as the initial stage of contact between a juvenile and the court. Also, it is where preliminary judgments regarding court referral, release, detention, and diversion are made. Fix, Cyperski, and Burkhart (2015) aver, “The decision to refer youth to juvenile court at intake stage may be determined to a lesser degree on the youth’s offense and demeanor due to differences in orientation and function between police organization and intake division” (p. 297). Mostly, the decisions are made based on life circumstances and background of the offender. Research shows that legal factors play a significant role in intake decision-making. Mostly, first lawbreakers and lesser felonies are pardoned or resolved outside the system. Nevertheless, many studies show ethnic and racial differences in outcomes that are not dependent entirely on legal factors. Fix et al. (2015) allege, “Minorities are likely to be referred on for further court proceedings even after considerations of legal and extralegal factors” (p. 302).

Cases involving minority offenders are hardly diverted from the judicial justice system. The judges argue that the majority of the minority offenders do not satisfy the criteria for diversion. The offenders’ distrust of the legal system prevents them from admitting guilt. The judges fail to appreciate that prejudice in the judicial system contributes to the distrust. It would be hard for minority offenders to trust a system that discriminates against them. Failure to acknowledge guilt does not necessarily mean that an individual is not repentant of their actions. Some offenders are afraid that acknowledging guilt will result in severe punishment.

Age is viewed as a determining feature in the juvenile judicial system. The system holds that younger teenagers lack mens rea due to inexperience, immaturity, and inability to overcome peer influence. It views older teenagers as more conscientious. Nevertheless, it is imperative to appreciate that not all older teenagers are mature. Generalizing older teenagers as conscientious discriminates against minority youths that take time to mature. The judicial system ignores factors like cognitive ability of the minors, which influence their judgment and vulnerability to crimes.

The family appraisal leads to disproportionate outcomes. Judgments about the capability of parental control and family organization influence intake referral decisions. Many minority youths who engage in crimes hail from single-parent families. It does not mean that the parents are unable to take care of their kids. It would be hard for parents to monitor the kids wherever they go. An argument that African-Americans engage in crime due to poor parental care is baseless. One would then argue that the parents of White minors who engage in crimes are also unable to look after their kids. The judicial system ought to change its perception about the relationship between single-parents and juvenile crimes, as it acts to the disadvantage of minority offenders.


A court may detain a juvenile if the judge believes that they might not appear at future hearings. Moreover, a juvenile may be arrested if they are likely to commit crimes in the future. The principles that guide preventive detention of minor offenders are unclear and prone to skewed decision-making (Fix, Fix, Wienke Totura, & Burkhart, 2016). Studies show that minority offenders are more liable than non-minority delinquents to remain in confinement even after consideration of pertinent legal and extralegal aspects. In most cases, the judges “believe” that minor offenders might decline to attend subsequent proceedings. Such a position is biased and detrimental to the affected parties. It is hard to tell if an individual will attend subsequent hearings by just considering their gender, race, or family background. In any case, Whites are at a high chance of sending their kids away to avoid incarceration. The blacks may lack money to relocate their children.

Judicial Disposition

The court makes judgments based on prior dispositions and records. The present crime does not have a significant influence on judicial temperament. According to Fix et al. (2016), judges pay attention to public safety and measures that have been put in place to prevent further crimes. Moreover, they are concerned with the moral character of the delinquent. Minor offenders that are often arraigned in court are deemed as hard-core delinquents with immoral values. The judges conclude that the offenders are not agreeable to treatment. It is imperative to note that previous dispositions and records, no matter how race-neutral they might appear, are tainted to unknown levels. Hence, minority teens are more prone to apprehension and conventional processing than Whites in similar situations. Biased judicial proceedings in initial stages result in minorities accumulating crime records and dispositions, which lead to judges drawing erroneous inferences regarding their behavior and ability to change. It underlines the reason more Blacks than Whites are represented in the judicial system.

Transfer to Adult Courts

Minority youths are inexplicably prone to waiver policies. According to Leiber and Peck, (2013), minority youths have higher odds of being transferred to adult criminal court for drug-related crimes than White juveniles. Leiber and Peck, (2013) allege, “Minority youths are transferred to adult courts far more than their proportional representation in the youth population and the overall cases processed by the juvenile justice system” (p. 258). Most studies focus on the type and rate of wavers and their outcomes. There is a gap in the literature that explains the contribution of race to waiver decision-making. Therefore, future studies should analyze the correlation between race and the probability of waiver to adult court. A survey carried out in diverse courts in the state of Iowa established no relationship between ethnicity and the resolution to waiver (Leiber & Peck, 2013). Nevertheless, an analysis of the most judicial outcomes reveals that being a minority or repeat offender increases one’s possibility of being transferred to an adult court.


Disparities in social situations and offending contribute to the unequal representation of different races in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, classist and racist depictions, coupled with behavioral prospects in the overall culture are occasionally replicated in juvenile courts. Stereotyping influences law enforcers’ decisions during the arrest. In return, it impacts the outcomes in the subsequent stages of judicial proceedings. The decision to detain, release, refer or divert a minor offender is made at the intake stage. First offenders and minors with fewer offenses are released. Judges can detain juveniles if they believe that they might not appear at future court proceedings. Unfortunately, the principles of preventive detention are unclear and susceptible to subjective decision-making, which discriminates against minorities. Disposition results depend on records. The judges worry about public safety and make decisions according to the moral character of the offender. Multiple offenders of minority background are regarded as hard-core criminals and are likely to be detained.


Davis, J., & Sorensen, J. (2013a). Disproportionate juvenile minority confinement: A state-level assessment of racial threat. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 11(4), 296-312.

Davis, J., & Sorensen, J. (2013b). Disproportionate minority confinement of juveniles: A national examination of Black-White disparity in placements, 1997-2006. Crime & Delinquency, 59(1), 115-139.

Donnelly, E. (2015). The disproportionate minority contact mandate: An examination of its impacts on juvenile justice processing outcomes (1997-2011). Criminal Justice Policy Review, 28(4), 347-369.

Feinstein, R. (2015). A qualitative analysis of police interactions and disproportionate minority contact. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 13(2), 159-178.

Fix, R., Cyperski, M., & Burkhart, B. (2015). Disproportionate minority contact: Comparisons across juveniles adjudicated for sexual and non-sexual offenses. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 29(3), 291-308.

Fix, R., Fix, S., Wienke Totura, C., & Burkhart, B. (2016). Disproportionate minority contact among juveniles adjudicated for sexual, violent, and general offending: The importance of home, school, and community contexts. Crime & Delinquency, 63(2), 189-209.

Leiber, M., & Peck, J. (2013). Race in juvenile justice and sentencing policy: An overview of research and policy recommendations. Law & Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 31(2), 331-370.

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