Study Examines Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System

 A study completed in November by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health suggests the racial make-up of a neighborhood may have a greater influence on the racial disparities in youth arrests than poverty, unemployment, vacant housing or school quality.

Racial disparities in the juvenile and criminal justice system are well documented. In 2013, the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that black youth were arrested at twice the rate of white youth. However, this study takes the next step in untangling the reasons for that disparity. In Los Angeles, the Board of Supervisors recently made a move to divert youth from the juvenile justice system.

“We know there is a range of ethnic disparities,” said Lauren Gase, chief of health and policy assessment for the division of chronic disease and injury prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “The goal of this study was to take a deeper look at some of the root causes.”

Gase, one of the study’s authors, conducted this research as part of her dissertation while a doctoral student at UCLA.

The study, “Understanding Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Arrest: The Role of Individual, Home, School, and Community Characteristics,” uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) and examines a range of factors at the individual, home, school, and community level and its effect on youth arrest. This includes characteristics such as delinquent behavior, parent education, school size, and community unemployment.

The results suggest racial disparities in youth arrests cannot be explained by differences in individual delinquent behavior. What they found is that contextual factors play a major role in these racial differences, and the primary driver is the racial make-up of a neighborhood.

In the United States, residential segregation and housing discrimination have largely contributed to the current racial composition of neighborhoods. In a major city like Los Angeles, black people were historically barred from living in predominately white neighborhoods and relegated to parts of South Los Angeles such as South Central and Watts, according to Eric Avila, author of Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.

The findings raise concerns that policing policies may differ based on the racial composition of the neighborhood. In 2015, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed Chicago’s police department administered DUI checkpoints almost exclusively in black and Latino neighborhoods. Policing practices such as these disproportionately target minority groups and potentially contribute to these racial disparities.

In order to address these racial differences, Gase believes there must be policy and system changes, but the work needs to be localized. This includes bringing people together and creating a space for meaningful dialogue among key stakeholders such as community members and policy makers, according to Gase.

On January 24 of this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to “advance a comprehensive, coordinated and expanded approach to youth diversion across Los Angeles County, with a goal of minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.” This integrated approach calls for community-based groups, school districts, and local police departments among others to work together to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system.


Brooke Pinnix is passionate about helping young people reach their full potential and has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 7 years. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this story for the Media for Policy Change course.

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