Is Race a Factor in Arrests? Study Sparks Debate by Suggesting ‘No’

American Youth Work Center
Jack Kresnak
July 1, 2003
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Juvenile Justice
Is Race a Factor in Arrests? Study Sparks Debate by Suggesting ‘No’

By Jack Kresnak and Patrick Boyle

A new federal study has stirred the debate over minority over-representation in the juvenile justice system by finding no evidence of racial bias in the arrests of youths for serious violent crimes.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which sponsored the study by researchers Carl E. Pope and Howard N. Snyder, said the study found “no direct evidence that an offender’s race affects police decisions to take juveniles into custody in such incidents.”

The report appears to cut against the grain of much contemporary juvenile justice thinking, as several studies have claimed that minorities are over-represented from arrest through conviction and imprisonment. But one of the authors and several juvenile justice experts cautioned against applying the new report’s findings to the broader issue of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in juvenile justice.

One issue is whether the report will be used to rebut claims of racial bias in juvenile justice. Any such conclusion “would go contrary to most every other research that has been done on this subject,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

“The basic question it answers is, ‘Is there gross discrimination at the point of arrest?’ The answer is ‘no,’ ” said Jeffrey Butts, senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “It doesn’t put to rest the question, ‘Is there disproportionate minority confinement in the juvenile justice system?’”

The Data

The study examined a sampling of 102,905 juvenile offenders from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, covering youth arrested for serious violent crimes in 17 states in 1997 and 1998. (The crimes included assault, robbery and rape, but not murder.) The researchers looked at characteristics such as the age, sex and race of the victims and those who were arrested, the offenses, the use of weapons and victim-offender relationships.

The researchers analyzed the data through logistic regression, which compares the odds of an event occurring under one set of conditions with the odds of it occurring under an almost identical set of conditions. In this set of data, only 34.2 percent of all juvenile offenders reported by victims were arrested, meaning that juvenile offenders have odds of about 2 to 1 of not being arrested.

(The researchers noted that “it is impossible to determine the true odds of arrest in two slightly different situations.”)

While finding no evidence of racial bias in the data, the authors said there was evidence to conclude that once a violent crime is reported to or witnessed by police, the likelihood of arrest is greater for white juvenile offenders than for non-whites. The data also indicate that there could be indirect bias in that non-white juveniles are more likely to be arrested when the victim is white than when the victim is non-white.

The researchers found that police arrested 35.9 percent of all white juvenile offenders reported to them, and 30.4 percent of all non-white juvenile offenders reported to them.

Other racial differences: White juvenile offenders were less likely than non-whites to have multiple victims, more likely to act alone, more likely to commit crimes indoors and less likely to possess a deadly weapon. They were also less likely to commit crimes against adults or members of another race and more likely to do so against family members.

Pope is a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Snyder is director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, based in Pittsburgh.

The Interpretation

One question is whether this study conflicts with previous studies.

In a summary of their new study in the April Juvenile Justice Bulletin, the authors note that when it comes to studies of the juvenile justice system, “some studies find evidence of racial bias and others do not.”

For example, a December 1999 Juvenile Justice Bulletin from OJJDP, written by Snyder and Melissa Sickmund, said, “Black juveniles are overrepresented at all stages of the juvenile justice system, compared with their proportion in the population,” and “While black juveniles ages 10 to 17 made up about 15 percent of the juvenile population, they accounted for 26 percent of juveniles arrested.”

So what’s different about the new study? For one thing, it looks only at serious, violent crimes. “If there was an area of crime that would have the least amount of police bias in the arrest decision-making, it would be serious crimes,” Snyder said. He said bias is more likely to be a factor in minor crimes, while “in serious crimes, if the police find the kid, they arrest him.”

Also, the new study includes reports only from jurisdictions included in the FBI’s incident-based reporting system. Those data come from small and mid-sized counties and cities. As of last fall, there were four participating jurisdictions with populations of more than 500,000: Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., Austin, Texas, and Fairfax County, Va.

As for the study’s place in the DMC debate, Snyder says it helps to settle the question about bias in serious violent crime arrests, but that’s a small part of the issue.

“The recent thinking about disproportionate minority contact is that it’s not located in one point in the process,” said Butts of the Urban Institute. “It’s slight disparity that accumulates over time” from arrest through lock-up, adjudication and sentencing.

Macallair referred to that accumulation when he said: “When we looked at Los Angeles, a higher percentage of kids of color were arrested. And in the adjudication stage we saw acceleration, larger numbers of kids of color transferred to adult court, larger numbers sent to penal institutions and a larger percentage of kids of color sent to correctional institutions. At virtually every stage, you saw a disparity.”

Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington, took issue not with the researchers, but with OJJDP. “They have framed this study as addressing the question of either that the system is biased against minority offenders or that the system treats all offenders in an equitable manner,” he said. “Those aren’t the only ways of thinking about this. The issue is much more complex and filled with subtleties.”

The OJJDP summary says the study “sheds light on one critical question about race and justice and reminds us that others remain to be answered.”

The study is available at www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/ojjdp/189180.pdf.

Jack Kresnak can be reached at kresnak@freepress.com.

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