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African-American Youth in The Juvenile Justice System

African-American Youth in The Juvenile Justice System

controlling only for present offense. Again, though there is little empirical information on which to draw conclusions, the evidence that exists suggests a complicated picture of decision making affected by multiple factors, including a number that are relatively subjective. The possibility that race may play a role in those waiver decisions in which substantial discretion is granted decision makers cannot be completely discarded. Decision Making in the Courts and Institutions By necessity, court officials classify youth and make judgments about character, and these decisions influence the outcome of legal proceedings. Since the 1960s, studies of racial bias in juvenile courts have examined whether court officials treat minority youth more severely than white youth (Aday, 1986; Arnold, 1971; Bishop and Frazier, 1988; Bortner and Reed, 1985; Carter and Wilkins, 1970; Fagan et al., 1987a, 1987b; Horowitz and Pottieger, 1991; Piliavin and Briar, 1964). Bridges and Steen (1998) point out that, although these studies call attention to racial discrimination in the juvenile courts, few have examined the mechanisms by which this process might take place. That is, how might court officials' perceptions of juvenile offenders contribute to racial differences in legal dispositions? Bridges and Steen (1998) argue that differential perceptions of youth and their crimes may act to “legitimate” racial disparities associated with official assessments of a youth 's dangerousness and risk of future criminal behavior. Bridges and Steen (1998) studied juvenile offenders and their probation officers' written accounts of the decisions made about their cases. Using these written accounts from reports and other information about the offenders, they examined the link between the offender's race and the probation officer's assessments of the youth, his or her crime, the perceived likelihood of future criminal behavior, and sentence recommendations. Bridges and Steen used information from 233 narrative reports written by probation officers in three counties in a western state, drawn from a larger sample of juvenile court cases processed through the courts between 1990 and 1991(Bridges and Steen, 1998). Probation officers write these reports for the court at the disposition of the case, typically following conviction. Many other scholars believe that race is a marker of social status that influences how officials evaluate the offender's case and character. For example, Cicourel's (1968) analysis of juvenile courts suggests that minorities are more likely than whites to be seen as disrespectful of authority and, in particular, disrespectful of court officials. Other studies have reported similar findings: that minorities are perceived differently from whites, despite having similar offense histories and characteristics, and often are seen as threatening and dangerous (Bridges et al., 1995, 1987; Farrell and Swigert, 1978; Tonry, 1995). The first question Bridges and Steen asked is whether court officials perceived and judged minority offenders differently from whites with similar characteristics. They also asked whether officials perceive minorities as more likely than white youths to commit future crimes. If court officials perceive minorities as more threatening, then they will be more likely to recommend greater punishment and control (Farrington et al., in press). Page 64 of 114

Bridges and Steen (1998) found pronounced differences in officers ' attributions about the causes of crime committed by white and minority youth. For black children, crime was attributed to negative attitudinal traits and personality defects. Among white children, their offenses were thought to be primarily caused by external environmental factors (e.g., family dysfunction, drug abuse, negative peer influence). Furthermore, they found that these differences contributed significantly to differential assessments of the risk of reoffending and to sentence recommendations, even after adjusting for legally relevant case and offender characteristics. These differences tended to shape the probation officers' evaluation of how likely the child would be to commit crime in the future and how amenable the child would be to treatment. Since juvenile court judges typically follow the sentencing recommendations of probation officers, these findings are important. This study also provided insight into the factors that influence preadjudication detention. Bridges and Steen (1998) found that race indirectly influenced decisions to detain through factors like performance in school and family situation. This was the case regardless of the nature and severity of the offense. When school performance and family were viewed as positive and stable, juveniles were more likely to be viewed as amenable to the court's influence and control. The perceived ability of the family to supervise the juvenile may affect the court 's decision about whether or not to detain. Black juveniles are more likely than whites or Hispanics to live in single-parent families (62 percent, 27 percent, and 36 percent, respectively) (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999). To the extent that court decision makers believe that single-parent families provide less supervision of youngsters than two-parent families, black juveniles are at higher risk of being detained. Being detained before adjudication negatively affects sentencing outcomes (e.g., whether or not to incarcerate as well as the length of a sentence). Petersen and Hagan (1984) have suggested that research must consider contextspecific conceptions of race and realize that race and minority status can act in combination with other variables to produce differential outcomes. For example, using a sample of 2,329 felony offenders sentenced from July 1977 to June 1978 in Minnesota, Miethe and Moore (1986) tested and compared additive (main effects) and race-specific models of analysis. While the additive model was not sensitive to race differences, the interactive model was. Black offenders receiving the most severe sentences tended to be single, from urban areas, had a previous felony record, and committed multiple and more serious offenses. For white offenders, this combination of characteristics revealed little effect on sentencing outcome. Race remained a major source of differential treatment in criminal processing when it was considered in conjunction with other social, legal, and case factors (Miethe and Moore, 1986). Research pertaining to the use of the death penalty indicates possible racial biases. For example, Baldus and colleagues (1983) reported that black offenders found guilty of murdering whites were at highest risk for the death penalty, whereas offenders of any race who were found guilty of murdering blacks were least likely to receive the death penalty. Some evidence, too, indicates that blacks are likely to serve a higher proportion Page 65 of 114

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