A frequent discussion within the field of juvenile justice revolves around equity and disparities among minority populations involved in the system; in short, disparities exist in nearly every state in the nation. This means that minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at a higher rate than the number of minority youth within the community. There are several theories that have been used to justify this phenomenon, but the reality is that this is a complex issue plaguing the justice system with no easy fix.
The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, recently reauthorized in 2018, emphasizes the requirement for states and local governments to address the ethnic disparities through a concept known as R.E.D. (Reducing Ethnic Disparities). Main strategies include collecting and analyzing data of existing and new cases becoming involved in the juvenile justice system to better understand the decisions being made. Objective tools to assess risk levels have been implemented in order to reduce bias when it comes to making decisions about system level interventions. Communities have also been challenged to review policies and practices to determine if any are unintentionally contributing to the disproportionalities. Overall, strategies to address ethnic disparities range from commonly used interventions to community specific, all with intentions of reducing the number of minority youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
This concept is not unique to the justice system, but often worsens at this level. It is not uncommon for many families to have involvement with other systems prior to their involvement with the juvenile justice system where decisions may inadvertently reinforce the path to ethnic disparities.
The Kane County Juvenile Justice Council is committed and required to address ethnic disparities in Kane County. Recent efforts have mainly centered on addressing the barriers to collecting data so that the ethnic disparities could be reviewed and discussed. In the meantime, the JJC has made efforts to address these issues through efforts to educate about cultural competency and implicit bias by hosting multiple training opportunities. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that once an individual is aware that they are being observed, they inadvertently change aspects of their behavior in response to the observation. Therefore, the JJC continues to bring issues of implicit bias and cultural competency to the forefront, with the goal of causing individuals to adjust their behavior in response to the knowledge and understanding that this issue is now being examined in the community. While the awareness building initiatives are minimal as an intervention to addressing the concept of ethnic disparities, it does provide a supportive foundation to further evaluation of disparities. Additional efforts include revising existing policies and procedures to accommodate the varying needs of families entering the juvenile justice system, likely improving some compliance outcomes for minority families involved in the system. In emphasizing awareness and understanding, the JJC will support the community’s capacity to be accepting of the different perspectives.
Historical Cultural Considerations
In discussing the concept of cultural competence and ethnic disparities, it would remiss not to consider the historical implications in understanding the complexities of this issue. Several experts have examined how various movements and policies in history have reinforced the existing ethnic disparities, nearly polarizing some communities. Because it is not possible to go back in time and change the decisions that were made at the time, recommendations from these experts have been to increase education about these so that they can be acknowledged in order for communities to begin the restoration process. See the resources section for links.
In discussing cultural competency, the concept of implicit bias often comes up. This refers to the unconscious attitudes that ALL human beings have toward or associated with others, often associated with stereotypes. In short, this is one of the strategies our brains use to help us make sense of the world. This concept is still being studied and understood, but researchers assert that this is not something we can change; it is part of being a human being. However, self-reflection and education are strategies that can be used to demonstrate and build awareness.
Race: The U.S. Census Bureau defines race as a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups. Usually refers to an individual’s physical characteristics. Races include, but are not limited to: White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian, or Pacific Islander. Individuals can also identify as mixed races as well.
Ethnicity: Refers to an individual’s cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, ethnicity refers to an individual’s origin, specifically Hispanic or non-Hispanic.
Class: Refers to an individual’s socioeconomic status.
Gender: Refers to socially constructed norms, behaviors, and roles of individuals. There are more genders beyond male and female.
Sexual orientation: Refers to the gender in which someone is attracted to emotionally, relationally, and sexually.
Geography: Refers to an individual’s home location and neighborhood.
To summarize, the Juvenile Justice Council is committed to restoring cultural competency and awareness, particularly to increase trust and social capital within our community. While it can be easy to cast blame on the different entities with decision making power, without addressing the lack of trust and rejection of alternate perspectives, minority populations continue to be at an increased risk to remain isolated and unsupported, resulting in increased adversities. Systems have a tendency to push certain cultural values and expectations. In recognizing that there are multiple definitions of success, the Juvenile Justice Council’s work to address this phenomenon is ongoing and challenging. At the end of the day, we all bring unique and valuable perspectives, but we are stronger as a community when we can come together.
- Harvard Implicit Bias Test
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
- Haywood Burns Institute
- National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University
 Armour, J. & Hammond, K. (2009) Minority Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: Disproportionate Minority Contact. National Conference of States Legislatures.