Dr. Joshua Cochran finds disproportionalities exist in the system

The 2014 Pew Public Opinion on Juvenile Justice in America survey found more than 75% of American want all juvenile offenders to receive more intensive probation services and access to more intervention by families, schools, and social service agencies.  This emphasis on rehabilitation is built into the juvenile court system. Although the mission of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is to reduce delinquency through effective prevention, intervention and treatment services to strengthen families and help youths referred to the juvenile justice system, there are significant differences between the dispositions African American youths and Caucasian youths receive.

In an examination of juvenile justice system data in Florida on over 70,000 youths referred to juvenile courts, researchers at the University of South Florida and Florida State University found that African American youths were more likely to receive more punitive outcomes—a consistent finding in juvenile justice sentencing studies—but also less likely to be diverted to delinquency prevention or community programs, or intensive rehabilitation programs during probation. 

Drs. Joshua Cochran, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at the University of South Florida and Daniel Mears, College of Criminology at Florida State University, suggest that understanding racial and ethnic patterning in court dispositions is an effective way to tap into disparities in youths’ likelihood to be punished (sanctioned), dismissed without punishment or intervention, or receive rehabilitation (diversionary intervention or probation) from the courts.

They determined that juvenile courts were more likely to dismiss African American youths rather than assign them to rehabilitation.  And even among youth who received diversion (the most common type of rehabilitation youth can receive), African American youth were substantially more likely to receive a judicial warning than Caucasians, and were less likely to receive more resource-intensive interventions.  These services, which often include family-centered and individual mental health and addiction counseling, anger management training, academic achievement skills building, and vocational education, have been shown to be effective deterrents to further involvement in criminal activities.  Among the youths placed on probation, African American youths were less likely to be directed into more intensive probation services.  Similar patterns were identified for Latino youth compared to Caucasians.

Dr. Cochran suggests that “these findings highlight the fact that disproportionalities exist not only in the likelihood of minority youth to receive more punitive sanctions, but also in the likelihood that courts assign minority youth to rehabilitative programming, which in many ways epitomizes the juvenile court’s mission of help, but do no harm.”  More research is needed to identify precisely what factors, such as implicit biases held by juvenile court judges, explain the differences across demographic groups in the types of interventions and punishments youth receive.  This can help inform future policy efforts aimed at creating a more racially and ethnically fair justice system.

For questions or more information about this study, please contact Dr. Cochran at jccochran@usf.edu

For more about the study, see Cochran, J. C., & Mears, D. P. (2014). Race, ethnic, and gender divides in juvenile court sanctioning and rehabilitative intervention.Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Advance online publication.  doi:10.1177/0022427814560574.

See also recent coverage of the study by The Marshall Project, written by Dana Goldstein:  https://www.themarshallproject.org/2014/12/18/black-boy-white-boyDr. Joshua Cochran