Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System


Minority youth disproportionately outnumber those who are white at every stage in the nation’s juvenile justice system. According to the MacArthur Foundation, youth of color constitute approximately one-third of the adolescent population in the U.S. but two-thirds of incarcerated youth.

Various explanations have emerged for the racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system ranging from jurisdictional issues, certain police practices and pervasive crime in some urban areas. Questions about the equality of minority treatment by police, courts and other personnel in the justice system have prompted state policymakers to address this important issue. At least 15 states in the past decade have enacted legislation identifying and addressing over-representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system.

The following laws have been implemented in the various states:

  • Racial impact statements: Requiring a statement, much like a fiscal impact statement, for proposed legislation that examines the impact of sentencing or parole changes on racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Committees or commissions to address racial and ethnic disparities: Established committees or commissions to address and remedy overrepresentation of minorities in their juvenile justice systems.
  • Cultural competency training for law enforcement: Requiring cultural competency model training for all law enforcement officers assigned to public school buildings.
  • Standardized data collection: Requiring some sort of standardized collection of ethnic and racial data on individuals arrested or committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice. 
  • Race neutral risk assessments: Requiring juvenile justice and probation staff to use “race-neutral” risk assessments instruments to eliminate racial and ethnic bias in detention screening.

Map showing disparities in juvenile justice involvment of white youth and youth of color