Crime and juvenile delinquency are serious national problems. Federal, state and local governments have focused increasingly on the need to understand and respond to crime. The cost of incarceration and the societal issues linked to the criminal element have forced us to look at preventative measures. Providing resources to prevent crime, and rehabilitate those who have committed crimes is at the forefront of many political discussions and debates.
The issues of minority overrepresentation in the adult criminal and juvenile justice systems have been the subject of much study, debate and planning in recent years as the data displays an increasingly grim picture. In 2001, minorities accounted for sixty-four percent of the prison inmate population. If something doesn’t change, it is estimated that 32% of African American men males will be incarcerated in prison at some point during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5. 9% of white men (Zamble, 2002).
A report by the Sentencing Project reports that African Americans’ are five times more likely than white Americans to be detained and Hispanics are twice as likely as whites to be detained. States with the largest degrees of overrepresentation include New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont as well as Wisconsin. Blacks were at least twelve times more likely to be incarcerated in these states. A higher rate of poverty and lack of education are frequently linked as causes to the incarceration of minorities (King, 2007).
The issue specifically, of minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system is a related national problem that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. The link between juvenile and adult crime is clear and preventing juvenile involvement may be the key to decreasing numbers in the adult system. According to the 1999 National Report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) "statistics reveal significant racial and ethnic disparity in the confinement of juvenile offenders.
In 1997, minorities made up about one-third of the juvenile population nationwide but accounted for two-thirds of the detained and committed population in secure juvenile facilities (Flores, 2003). " Throughout the country, the disparity grows with the level of confinement; Black youth comprise 15% of the total population, yet they represent 26% of the arrests, 32% of court referrals, 36 % of those formally charged, 41% of those detained pending trial, 46% of those incarcerated and 52% of those transferred to adult court.
Black youth were most overrepresented in drug charges (64%). The incarceration rate is also higher for Latino youth in fact, 60% higher than for White youth (Flores, 2003). A study by Building Blocks for Youth, a research and advocacy group shows that black youth with no prior history are six times more likely to be incarcerated than White youth in similar circumstances. National data and research have documented disproportionate representation of minorities in secure juvenile facilities across the country (Poe, 2000).
To understand the issue of overrepresentation in the adult system, one must understand juvenile delinquency. Delinquency is generally defined as a behavior or act that defies the current laws and the term is used specifically for the population under the age of eighteen. A delinquent act is something that would be considered criminal if the person were above the age of seventeen.
In the 1950’s, what became known as juvenile or family courts were developed in every state with the sole purpose of separating youth from adults in the legal system. Quickly following family and juvenile courts were the development of clinics and services to evaluate and rehabilitate youthful offenders. Court procedures and laws began to change to assure appropriate handling of juvenile delinquency matters (Flores, 2003). In 1974, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Act resulted in rules for dealing with juvenile delinquents.
Later, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, OJJDP was established. States interested in receiving funds from the OJJD are now required to make efforts to reduce the proportion of minority youth detained or confined juvenile detention facilities. States have been responding by examining the factors that influence decision making at various points in the system from arrest to detention to commitment (Flores, 2003).