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The cumulative disparity experienced by minority youth at any decision point in the juvenile justice system is a combination of the disparities introduced at prior decision points and that added by the decision point of interest. Studying the set of Relative Rate Indices for a specific decision process enables us to see the unique contributions made by each decision point to the overall disparity in the system. Some decisions (those with Relative Rate Indices greater than 1.0) increase disparity in the system. Some decisions (those with Relative Rate Indices equal to 1.0) neither increase nor decrease disparity but maintain the level of disparity that resulted from prior decisions. And some decisions (those with Relative Rate Indices less than 1.0) reduce the level of disparity in the system.
With this background, we can review the set of Relative Rate Indices (RRI) that capture disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system’s handling of delinquency cases in 2009. The decision point that contributed the most to the overall level of disparity in the system is the point of arrest. The Relative Rate Index of the arrest decision point was significantly greater than 1.0 when comparing the overall minority arrest rate to that of white youth. This RRI of 1.8 means that the minority youth arrest rate was about 80% greater than the white arrest rate. The arrest decision’s RRI is even greater (2.2) when comparing black youth to white youth. The arrest RRI for American Indian or Alaskan Native (AIAN) youth indicates that the arrest rates for AIAN and white youth were equal, suggesting there was little racial disparity at the arrest stage for these two groups. The arrest RRI for Asian, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander (AHPI) youth (0.3) indicates that their arrest rate was far below that of white youth, signifying an arrest disparity for these two groups that brings a disproportionately smaller number of AHPI youth into the juvenile justice system for a delinquency offense.
There are several possible reasons for these racial disparities at the point of arrest. For example, minority youth may commit delinquencies at a greater rate than white youth, with the greater arrest rate simply reflecting these behavioral differences. It may also be that even when minority and white youth commit crimes at similar rates, the crimes of minority youth are more likely to be reported to law enforcement, also resulting in a higher arrest rate. Or it could be that even when both groups commit crimes at similar rates and these crimes are equally likely to be reported to law enforcement, law enforcement is more likely to arrest minority youth. Using only data available for calculating the RRI, it is not possible to determine which or how much each of these factors contribute to racial disparities reflected by the RRIs at the arrest decision point.
The RRI for referral to juvenile court (which is greater than 1.0 for all racial groups) indicates that the level of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system was further increased as a result of this decision. In 2009, even after controlling for possible disparities up to the arrest decision, minority youth were more likely than white youth to be referred to juvenile court for a delinquent offense.
The RRI for the detention decision indicates that there were racial disparities at this decision point also in 2009 that resulted in a greater proportion of minority youth than white youth who were referred to juvenile court being securely detained. Many factors could have lead to this racially disparate decision.
The petitioning decision further added to the level of racial disparity in the processing of delinquency cases. In 2009 minority youth referred to juvenile court for a delinquent offense were, in general, more likely to be processed formally (and less likely to be diverted from the formal court process) than were white youth referred to juvenile court. Once again, the disparities added at this decision point could be the result of several factors (e.g., differential severities in the nature of their crimes, differences in the youths’ prior delinquency histories, and/or decisionmaker bias); only further research can establish the most likely causes.
The RRI for the adjudication decision indicates that these decisions actually helped somewhat to reduce the overall level of racial disparity in the processing of delinquency referrals by the system given that the RRI for minority youth was less than 1.0. Once petitioned, minority youth charged with a delinquent offense in 2009 were somewhat less likely to be adjudicated than were white youth. One of the many possible reasons for this pattern could be that the screening decision used to petition these cases may have sent a greater proportion of legally weak or less serious cases of minority youth to an adjudication hearing and these cases were screened out at the adjudication decision.
Once adjudicated, the RRIs indicate that minority youth were more likely to be placed out of the home and less likely to be placed on probation than were adjudicated white youth in 2009. Once again, there could be many reasons for these racially-disparate decisions, factors that only additional research can identify.
Finally, the RRI for the waiver decision indicates that there were racial disparities at this decision point in 2009 that resulted in a greater proportion of the minority youth than white youth who were referred to juvenile court being judicially transferred to criminal court. Again, many factors could have lead to this racially-disparate decision.
In all, in 2009 many decisions made in the juvenile justice system processing of delinquency cases were racially disparate. However, this racial disparity may not be the result of racial bias in the decisionmaking process. Only more targeted research can uncover the most likely causes. For example, DMC Relative Rate Index Matrices could be developed separately for various types of delinquency cases (e.g., violent, property, drugs, and public order) or various types of juvenile offenders (e.g., males and females, young and old) or various locations (e.g., urban, suburban, and rural areas) to see if the disparity patterns are linked more strongly to some types of delinquency cases than to others. In addition, considerations of the magnitude of the various RRIs highlight the decision points where the contribution to disparity was greatest in the processing of delinquency cases in 2009 (e.g., arrest, detention, and placement) and can help to prioritize the points at which further study is most warranted.