Race and Ethnic Differences In Juvenile Offenders.doc

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Racial and Ethnic Differences in Juvenile Offending Janet L. Lauritsen INTRODUCTION The previous chapter makes it clear that minority youth are over-represented in the juvenile justice system, and that small differences in the handling of cases at early stages in the juvenile justice process can produce large differences in outcomes at the later stages. The fact that black and Latino youth constitute approximately 16% and 15% of the children under 18 years of age, yet represent about 40% and 18% of youth held in residential placement facilities raises many questions about bias in the juvenile justice system (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999). Not surprisingly, these discrepancies also prompt questions about the extent to which racial and ethnic groups vary in offense involvement and how such information is best obtained. Social scientists use three major types of data to study group differences in offense involvement: arrest data generated by police departments, victim reports of offender characteristics from large random surveys, and self-reported offending data obtained through surveys of youth. Each source of information has strengths and weaknesses that will be discussed in detail below. Careful interpretation of all three sources of information make it possible to assess whether disproportionately higher rates of minorities in juvenile residential facilities is a likely result of bias in the juvenile court system, bias in law enforcement, or a function of differential rates of criminal activity. Before describing what is known about racial and ethnic differences in juvenile offending, it is important to emphasize the complexity of this issue. Variations in the reliability and validity of data mean that more confidence is placed in knowledge about certain types of offending (e.g., homicide) than other types of crime (e.g., property and drug crimes). Limitations 1
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in the measurement and collection of data on race and ethnicity mean that many of our analyses lack much needed detail and fail to answer important questions about differences within and between minority groups. In addition, conclusions about racial and ethnic differences, based largely on individual-level data, often remain incomplete. Analyses that also consider variations in community characteristics, broader socioeconomic conditions, and perceived injustices in the law and the administration of those laws will provide a fuller understanding of the factors that account for observed racial and ethnic differences in juvenile offending. This chapter is organized into five sections. The first describes how racial and ethnic data is gathered, and why current information is unable to address many important questions about group differences in offending. The second section presents juvenile arrest data by race and discusses how these data can be compared to victims’ reports and juveniles’ self-reports as a way of cross-checking their validity. The third section draws from all three data sources to
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