Tackling Racial Bias in the Youth Justice System

Two 17-year-olds named Ed and Lou are charged with first degree robbery in two different incidents within the same jurisdiction. Ed allegedly held up a gas station, while Lou allegedly robbed two motels. Neither had any prior involvement with the juvenile justice system.

In each case two friends were involved in committing the crimes. Also, in each case, guns were involved, but no injuries were reported.

Here is how a probation officer assessed Ed:

“This appears to be a premeditated and willful act by Ed…There is an adult quality to this referral. In talking with Ed, what was evident was the relaxed and open way he discussed his lifestyle. There didn’t seem to be any desire to change. There was no expression of remorse from the young man. There was no moral content to his comment.”

And here is how another probation officer assessed Lou:

“Lou is the victim of a broken home. He is trying to be his own man, but…is seemingly easily misled and follows other delinquents against his better judgment. Lou is a tall emaciated little boy who is terrified by his present predicament. It appears that he is in need of drug/alcohol evaluation and treatment.”

These examples are from a 1998 study that looked at how probation officers’ perceptions of offenders influenced their classifications, assessments and recommendations for punishment. The study was done by George S. Bridges, formerly a professor of sociology and associate dean of undergraduate education at the University of Washington and current president of Whitman College and Sara Steen, formerly assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and currently associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Why does one probation officer think that Ed deliberately chose to commit a crime and has no regrets about it while another probation officer thinks that Lou was pushed into doing something bad against his will and could be helped by substance abuse treatment?

The answer from Bridges, Steen and other social science researchers is implicit or unconscious bias. In cases like Ed’s and Lou’s, it leads juvenile justice officials to conclude that youth of color should be treated differently than white youth – usually more harshly — even when they are charged with committing the same or similar offenses.

Ed is African-American and Lou is white.

Research shows that even people who think they harbor no overt racial prejudice can be guilty of unconscious or implicit bias.

Michael Harris, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law – a Public Welfare Foundation grantee — who specializes in juvenile law, observes that racism does not have to be intentional to be meaningful.

“The overwhelming majority of people in the country associate white with good and black with bad,” he said in a recent interview with National Public Radio. “Because we have adopted these stereotypes – and it’s all of us, it doesn’t matter what race you are – our implicit bias comes into play without us even realizing that that’s what’s going on.”

Implicit or unconscious bias is based on the same stereotypes that fuel conscious bias based on race. One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that black males, including young black males, are more dangerous and pose a greater risk to the community than white males.

This was shown most recently in a study that was published in March, 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association. In this study, college students and police officers were told that certain young children had committed a crime – both misdemeanors and felonies – and then were asked to estimate the children’s ages.The researchers, led by Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of psychology at UCLA, found that both the students and the officers were far more likely to overestimate – by more than four years – the ages of young black boys than young white boys. They were also less likely to view the black children as innocent.

“Most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood,” the study reported, “black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious.”

Such findings also help explain the different assessments of Ed and Lou by the probation officers. The implications of such assessments for youth of color in the juvenile justice system are enormous.

On any given night, about 60,500 youth are confined in juvenile correctional facilities or other residential programs and an additional 10,000 youth are in adult jails or prisons. According to the W. Haywood Burns Institute, youth of color comprise 38 percent of the total youth population in the U.S., but they account for nearly 70 percent of those who are confined. The Institute, another Public Welfare Foundation grantee, has worked with more than 100 jurisdictions across the country to overcome racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The federal government has promoted policies for more than two decades to address such disparities under the Youth Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). But it still finds that youth of color continue to be arrested, charged and incarcerated more than white youth for similar conduct, and that they are overrepresented at every decision-making point in the juvenile justice system.

In a study conducted for the Justice Department, researchers found that in two-thirds of the state and local juvenile justice systems they analyzed, there was a “race effect” at some stage of the process that had a negative impact on results for youth of color. The research also suggested that the effects of race “may accumulate as youth continue through the system.”

The accumulating effect of race can be particularly devastating when an official must decide whether a youth – particularly a black male youth — charged with committing an offense should be held in detention or a secure setting rather than being released to his family or to an alternative rehabilitative facility within the community.

“Implicit bias comes into play in that decision making because [of] how we think about who represents a risk,” says Harris of the National Center for Youth Law. “We know there have been studies that say that people, across the board and regardless of their own race, think black males are more likely to commit crimes than white males.”

The consequences of this decision are crucial because, generally, youth who spend time in secure facilities have worse results – including higher recidivism rates – than those who are provided services through programs in the community. To the extent that youth of color are confined in secure facilities disproportionately, and treated differently throughout the juvenile justice system, then the underlying policies and practices that contribute to such racial disparities need to be closely examined and addressed.

One emerging area of focus for researchers is to test “de-biasing” techniques. These techniques include trying to persuade those who hold biases to view things from the perspective of a victim of racial prejudice or to present them with stellar achievers from the group they are biased against.

Although the “de-biasing” results only last for short periods of time, from a day to a couple of months,  researchers are encouraged to find that unconscious bias is not fixed in concrete.

As James Bell, founder and executive director of the Burns Institute, notes, the ultimate goal is making sure that all youth caught in the juvenile justice system are treated the same.

“What we’re talking about is fairness and…equitable treatment,” he says. “We need to make sure that a young person of color who steals a car in a poor neighborhood and a white kid who steals a car in a rich neighborhood don’t get differential treatment – that, in fact, they are treated the same.”

Juvenile justice advocates are learning increasingly about implicit bias and exploring ways to translate the research on “de-biasing” in the juvenile justice context. They are determined to confront institutional norms and other factors, including implicit bias, which influence day-to-day decision-making within the juvenile justice system – decisions that determine the fate of young people like Ed and Lou.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

Stay Informed with our eNewsletter