The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice


The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice

Differential Treatment of African American Youth

Will Drakeford and Lili Frank Garfinkel

This article examines racial factors within the juvenile justice and mental health systems that contribute to the overrepresentation of African American men and boys in correctional facilities. The authors also explore recent efforts by lawmakers and academic institutions to address these inequalities.

Racial Bias and the Juvenile Justice System

Over the last 4 decades, racial inequalities among African American and other young men in juvenile detention centers have been well documented. The factors associated with overrepresentation of youth in corrections are complex. Evidence suggests that school failure, poorly developed social skills, and inadequate school and community supports are also associated with this phenomenon.

The overrepresentation of minorities is evident in the adjudication process, including arrests, detention, prosecution, and commitment to detention. Indeed, the overrepresentation of youth of color in juvenile confinement continues to soar in direct proportion to the fears of violence and crime that grip the minds of those dominant culture U.S. citizens who are least likely to be its victims (Isaacs-Shockley, 1994).

A number of recent studies have investigated the disproportionate confinement of African American boys in the juvenile justice system around the country. Some researchers have found that higher incarceration rates are largely due to the higher number of crimes committed by these youth. A study by Blumstein (1982) found that a greater level of criminal activity among African American men and boys contributes to higher rates of adjudication. Blumstein compared arrest rates and incarceration rates of African Americans and Whites nationally and found that 80% of incarceration discrepancy was due to racial arrest rate differences. However, incarceration rates are not an effective and precise measure of criminal activity among African Americans. Such findings fail to recognize racial disparities prevalent in enforcement practices. Law enforcement officers who are White are more likely to arrest poor minorities because of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic that suggests that minorities are more prone to participate in criminal activity (Morales, 1989).

Raspberry (1991) noted that Minnesota imposes a 4-year sentence for first-time users of crack cocaine but only probation for first-time users of powdered cocaine. Ninety-two percent of those arrested for crack cocaine possessions were African American, whereas 85% of those arrested for possession of powdered cocaine were White. Obviously, this leads to higher arrest rates among African Americans than their White counterparts. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice found that in New Jersey only 10% of White juveniles were adjudicated and sentenced for first-degree crimes, as opposed to 31% of African American juveniles for the same crimes. Finally, Bishop and Frazier (1990) found that White juvenile offenders received lesser penalties than their non-White peers for similar crimes committed in Florida. The examination of data over 3 years also revealed that disparities exist at critical decision points in the juvenile justice system, including arrest, detention, and commitment. In summary, differential treatment in the juvenile justice system is not explained by factors such as severity of offense.

While the debate over differential treatment within the juvenile justice system lingers, incarceration rates among African American youth continue to rise. Research has shown that racial disparities within the juvenile justice system contribute to the overrepresentation of African American youth confined in juvenile detention centers. These issues are also prevalent as a result of biases that exist in mental health agencies.

Racial Bias and Mental Health Systems

Cohen (1991) cited a number of research studies that document racial bias within the mental health system. In his study, the characteristics of youth placed in a psychiatric facility were compared with those of youth placed in a corrections facility. The results showed that both groups had similar scores on the Child Behavior Checklist, but 63% of the youth in corrections settings were Black as compared with 34% in the psychiatric facility. Furthermore, his research indicated that White children sent to corrections facilities showed more serious signs of emotional and behavioral disorders. He speculated that this finding might reflect a higher threshold for admission of White children.

Kaplan and Busner (1992) examined disparities in New York. Their data showed that 910 (62%) of the 1,474 adolescents in their sample admitted to mental health establishments were White and only 341 (23%) were Black. On the other hand, of those incarcerated in correctional facilities, 780 (56%) were Black and only 389 (28%) were White.

Research conducted in Maryland revealed that Black children are sent to juvenile jails whereas White children with similar mental disorders, offenses, criminal histories, and mental health problems are placed in residential treatment centers. The Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition specifically noted that in 1998, 120 White juveniles were sentenced to treatment in Maryland's residential centers and 223 White juveniles were jailed. At the same time, 132 Black juveniles received treatment, while 672 were confined with no treatment (Richissin, 1999).

The problem of inequality is further exacerbated when mental health institutions and justice system professionals fail to properly diagnose and provide assistance to African American children. For example, in a clinical setting where prospective clients are given a brief intake interview, African American clients may be inaccurately perceived as less distressed than White clients. This could affect therapist assignment, delay the start of therapy, and influence treatment formulation and the seriousness of potential risk (e.g., suicide or violent acting out; Martin, 1993, p. 288). A portion of the issues can be attributed to the abuse of drugs, unemployment, and poverty, but a large portion of the problem can be attributed to a political climate that is insensitive to the needs of disadvantaged populations. This insensitivity vicariously supports and fosters the antisocial behavior displayed by many African American men and boys in U.S. society (Brinson, 1994). The problem of overrepresentation has been well documented, and efforts to solve this issue are in order.

What About Solutions?

The 1988 amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDP) of 1974 require states to address the overrepresentation of minorities in juvenile detention facilities. Approximately 42 states have complied.

They have completed the identification and assessment phases and are currently implementing the intervention phase of JJDP (Hsia & Hamparian, 1998). In an attempt to assist with the process of assessment and implementation, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) selected five states in 1991 to participate in the Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC) initiative. The DMC initiative had several positive effects, including the development of automated systems, increased community collaboration, and improvement in local systems (Devine, Coolbaugh, & Jenkins, 1998).

In October 1999, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of juvenile justice and Delinquency Prevention, jointly funded the National Center on Education, Disability and juvenile justice (EDJJ). EDJJ is a collaborative effort involving faculty and staff from the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky, Arizona State University, the American Institute for Research in Washington, DC, and the PACER parent advocacy center in Minneapolis. Peter Leone at the University of Maryland is the designated director of EDJJ.

EDJJ plans to address the issue of overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system through research, training, technical assistance, and dissemination activities. Using regional meetings, technical assistance, research and evaluation activities, and publication and dissemination, EDJJ will be well positioned to help change the perceptions and understandings about minority youth in communities and in the juvenile justice system. Further, through a network of practitioners, administrators, parents, and policymakers, EDJJ will help shape more effective and appropriate responses and accommodations for minority youth.

A Final Thought

African American youth are overrepresented in juvenile correctional facilities at an alarming rate. Although appropriate consequences are necessary to protect the public from criminal activity and rehabilitate the individual offender, practices that are characterized by discrimination and bias have no place in the corrections system.

Will Drakeford is a faculty research assistant at the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. Lili Frank Garfinkel is coordinator of the Juvenile Justice Project at PACER Center in Minneapolis and is also associate director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. William Drakeford can be contacted at: University of Maryland, Benjamin Building, College Park, MD 20742; e-mail:


Reprinted with permission of Reclaiming Youth, Healing Racism, Spring 2000. Published by PRO-ED, 8700 Shoal Creek Boulevard, Austin, TX 78757-6897


Bishop, D. M., & Frazier, C. E. (1990). A study of race and juvenile processing in Florida. Report submitted to the Florida Supreme Court and Ethic Bias Study Commission.

Blumstein, A. (1982). On the racial disproportionality of United States prison populations. Journal of Law and Criminology, 73, 1259-1281.

Brinson, J. (1994). The incarceration of black males: Unsettled questions. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 20, 85-95.

Cohen, R. (1991). To prisons or hospitals: Race and referrals in juvenile justice. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2, 248-249.

Devine, P., Coolbaugh, K., & Jenkins, S. (1998). Disproportionate minority confinement: Lessons learned from five states. Bulletin. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Hsia, M., & Hamparian, D. (1998). Disproportionate minority confinement: 1997 update. Bulletin, Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Isaacs-Shockley, M. (1994). Cultural competence and the juvenile justice system: Irreconcilable differences? Focal Point, 8, 19-20.

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act Amendments of 1998, 42 U.S.C. 5601 et seq.

Kaplan, L. S., & Busner, J. (1992). A note on racial bias in the admission of children and adolescents to state mental health facilities versus correctional facilities in New York. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 768-772.

Martin, W. T. (1993). White therapists' differing perceptions of black adolescents. Adolescents, 110, 281-289.

Morales, A. (1989, January). Increasing incarceration of minority youth: A mental health crisis in California. Paper presented at the Judicial Response to the Disproportionate Incarceration of Minority Youth in America Advisory Committee Symposium, San Francisco.

Raspberry, W. (1991, January 4). Why so many people in prison? The Washington Post, p. IA.

Richissin, T. (1999, June 25). Race predicts handling of many young criminals: Care vs. punishment of mentally ill youth correlates with color. The Baltimore Sun, p. IA.

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention. (1990). The disproportionate incarceration of Black and Hispanic youth in New Jersey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]