Youth Detention and Race


Kristan C. Fox and Michael J. Leiber have attempted to address the alarming increase in the juvenile detention population by minorities in the state of Iowa. They conducted research by examining the correlation between race and youth detention and juvenile justice decision making. They theoretically used symbolic threat thesis, subjective social psychological processes, and consensus theory to explain their ultimate findings from the research that was conducted.

According to the researchers, “The symbolic threat thesis is a perspective that attempts to identify the contingencies or the contexts of juvenile justice decision making. It focuses on the characteristics of the youth, especially minorities and social psychological emotions of juvenile court officials.” Symbolic threat thesis conflicts with the ability to have a positive perspective of both minorities and lower- to middle-class people. Stereotypes often occur, whereas the minority youth is presumed destined to eventually commit some form of deviant act or behavior that will result in future detainment. For example, if an African-American or any other minority youth engages in deviant behavior, such as illegal use of narcotics, it is seen as normal for those “type” of people, whereas if a Caucasian youth engages in the same behavior, it is seen as a tragedy and outside help is needed.

In a previous article, Leiber uses subjective social-psychological processes to compare to decision makers as well as the factors that influence those processes. According to the researchers, “Leiber focused on the relationships among correctional orientations (such as retribution and rehabilitation) and decision maker’s views concerning race, crime, family, and respect for authority with regard to case processing and case outcomes for youth.” For example, if the majority of people committing burglaries are minorities in one jurisdiction, but in another jurisdiction, Caucasians are the majority committing burglaries, both correctional facilities are going to deal with the youth differently based on their own biases, without knowing they are doing so. One term that comes to mind is tunnel vision. In this instance, the mind has already correlated certain behaviors with certain ethnic groups. A person with tunnel vision, placed in an unfamiliar setting where deviant behavior could be associated evenly among ethnic groups, would still make an assumption as to who performed the deviant behavior based on the specific group that he or she is conditioned to.

YouthAccording to the researchers, “Consensus theory provides an alternative perspective for understanding the effects of race on detention and other decision-making strategies… In the case of the juvenile justice system, extralegal factors, such as age and assessments of the families’ ability to supervise youth” are also in play.

Previous research suggests that the earlier a minority youth is detained, the more probability exists that, upon release, the same cycle of deviance and behavioral patterns will be continued. This cycle will directly affect the individual’s future verdicts for future offenses, which indirectly creates the stereotype of that minority. Some stereotypes the researchers found regarding African-Americans is that they are undisciplined due to having dysfunctional families that were primarily headed by young single-parent households. and that they are sexually promiscuous, dangerous, delinquent, and presumed to be prone to drug offenses. These perspectives would make it harder for a first-time minority offender to get off lightly; law enforcement may expect to see minority youths repeatedly escalating the severity of the crimes they commit. Implications for the present research presented in the article suggests that future investigation is needed due to the various factors that lead to the increase of the minority youth population in detainment.

The research was done at the Northeast Iowa Juvenile Detention Center. The regional detention facility is located in the largest of 20 member counties. The county has a population of 130,224 people, with persons aged 17 and younger constituting 24 percent of the population. African-American youths comprise the largest group of minority youths (11-13 percent). According to the study team, “Due to the relatively small population of minority youths in Iowa, all participants for the study were selected from juvenile referrals over a 21-year period, 1980 through 2000, from one juvenile court involving individuals accused of delinquent behavior. The cases for the present research consisted of a random sample of referrals identified as Caucasian individuals (n = 3,888) and a disproportionate random sampling identified as African American individuals (n = 1,666). In totality, the weighted sample size consisted of 5,554 participants.”

When used as a dependent variable, initial detention consists of a youth being detained prior to completing the intake stage. Overall, a small percentage of youth (6 percent) have been held in detention at this point, and 27 percent of youth, at this point, agrees to accept a form of consent decree, whereas the rest of the youth proceeds to the adjudication stage. The youth must admit guilt to participate in the diversionary option.

The majority of detained youth were Caucasian (70 percent) while the minority was (30 percent). Forty-eight percent of the youth resided in households with one parent present. Most of the cases were filed as misdemeanors (85 percent). Only 14 percent of the sample youth were charged with a personal offense or a drug offense. Due to the lack of research in this area and the possibility that legal representation may influence case processing and outcomes, it is noted that 24 percent of the youth had counsel.

youthThe study team found that, “Race, directly in interaction with other independent variables and indirectly through detention, affects decision making. For the purpose of clarity, the discussion will be limited to the effects of detention and race on the decision-making stages.” Compared to white youth, being a minority increases the likelihood of being detained by five percent. Estimations for race interaction effects with each independent variable also produced a statistically significant relationship between race and drugs. For Caucasians, participation in drugs has no significant effect on detention. For minorities, involvement with drugs has a positive and significant factor that would refer them for further court hearings at intake. Being detained increases the likelihood of receiving a critically severe outcome at intake by 19 percent.

There is also evidence of race interaction relationships with family status, involvement in personal offenses, and drug offenses. Family status has a statistically significant effect for both Caucasians and minorities. When correlated with symbolic threat thesis, minorities are perceived by decision makers and law enforcement as being prone to drug and trafficking offenses, threatening, and potentially dangerous. Although there is no evidence of a race interaction effect with detention decision-making, research has shown that detention operates differently for Caucasians relative to minorities.

In conclusion, the correlation between race and drug use; legal factors; and interaction with family, status and personal offenses influence intake decision making. Evidently, the race of an individual is not a correlated predictor of the decision to recommend further intake procedures; it indirectly affects the decision through detention status.

By Jhayla Tyson

Fox, K, & Leiber, M. (2005). Race and the Impact of Detention on Juvenile Justice Decision Making
Leiber, M, & Mack, K. (2002). Race, Age, and Juvenile Justice Decision Making
Research Gate: Race Effects in Juvenile Justice Decision-Making: Findings of a Statewide Analysis

Image Sources:
Top Article Image and Featured Image Courtesy of Thomas Hawk’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Bottom Image Courtesy of Ashraf Mahmood’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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