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Racial Disparities in the Punishment of Youth: A Theoretical and Empirical Assessment of the Literature

Rodney L. Engen, Sara Steen and George S. Bridges
Social Problems
Vol. 49, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 194-220
DOI: 10.1525/sp.2002.49.2.194
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2002.49.2.194
Page Count: 27
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Racial Disparities in the Punishment of Youth: A Theoretical and Empirical Assessment of the Literature
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Abstract

Findings from research on racial disparities in juvenile justice outcomes are mixed and the causes of minority overrepresentation in juvenile justice remain unclear. This study systematically examines the relationship between theories of disparity in juvenile justice, methodological characteristics of studies, and findings regarding the effects of race in the existing empirical literature. The results indicate that several theoretically derived methodological features of studies predict whether or not studies report that race matters. Race effects are more prevalent among studies that examine earlier stages in the juvenile justice process or that examine cumulative measures of dispositional severity, and among studies that compare outcomes for white youth to those for black youth. Studies that control for prior offending are significantly less likely to find direct race effects. Race effects are not contingent upon whether or not studies control for differences in the seriousness of offending. These findings offer support for a structural-processual perspective on the role of race in juvenile justice, and suggest that disproportionately punitive treatment is more clearly associated with being black than with being "non-white."

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