Toxic Racial & Ethnic Disparities

While youth of color make up roughly 33% of the youth population in Massachusetts, they are just under 40% of those arrested, 60% of those arraigned, 66% of those detained pre-trial or because of a probation violation, and 68% of those committed to the Department of Youth Services (DYS).  These disparities have actually worsened over time; with the result that the “fairness” that is necessary to a functioning justice system is increasingly under threat. 

National research has found that these disparities cannot be adequately explained by differential offending.[1] In some cases, they relate to policing practices in communities of color (“differential enforcement”), as well as “differential processing. ” Implicit or explicit biases within the system, policies or practices that are facially neutral but that disproportionately burden children of color (e.g. detaining youth whose parents do not appear in court at a hearing, since families of color are less likely to own a car), and “structural inequalities” such as poverty and lack of access to quality schools[2] also help drive and worsen disparities. 

Disparities not only cause the worst burdens of the juvenile justice system to fall disproportionately on children of color, they can actually increase recidivism on their own.  As summarized in Reforming Juvenile Justice:

Recent research indicates that individuals’ perceptions of fairness are important to legal socialization …[and that] juveniles may be more likely to accept responsibility for less serious offenses early in the process if they perceive delinquency proceedings to be fair and transparent and any sanctions imposed to be proportionate to their offenses…  [T]he well-documented pattern of disproportionate minority contact throughout the process, together with disproportionately harsh sentences imposed on minority youth, are likely to contribute to perceptions by [youth of color] that the justice system is fundamentally unfair.[3]  (Emphasis supplied.)

While disparities are not always easy to fix, there are numerous strategies that jurisdictions have employed to reduce and in some cases eliminate them.  Addressing school-to-prison pipeline issues; limiting unguided discretionary decisions by introducing decision-making tools; reducing pre-trial detention; training; engaging high-level system oversight and leadership; and improving race and ethnicity data collection and analysis are all potential steps that jurisdictions can take to address racial bias and inequity in our juvenile system.[4]   

The use of data – at both the system and individual level – can have a large impact on reducing disparities.  Data allows system leaders to see disparities when and where they occur and to identify and evaluate policies or practices that may inadvertently drive children deeper into the system. On an individual level, research tells us that tracking one’s own decision-making can help mitigate the impact of implicit or unconscious bias by allowing us to see it in action.   


[1] Richard J. Bonnie et al. (eds.). Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. National Research Council of the National Academies (2013), 233.

[2] While only 9% of white children in the Commonwealth live in poverty, 32% and 38% of African-American and Latino children do. Children of color are more than four times as likely to be retained in a grade and 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled.  By high school, African-American and Latino youth are, respectively, nearly 2 and 3 times more likely than white youth not to graduate on time. Youth of color are also much more likely to be disconnected from school or work as they enter adulthood.

[3] Reforming Juvenile Justice at 130.

[4] Reforming Juvenile Justice at 234-23