The issue of the overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal and juvenile justice system is complex with research showing that there are many factors that lead to these disparities (socioeconomic status, employment, educational opportunities, drug and mental health issues, differences in type and rate of criminal and delinquent behavior). These factors contribute to the pathway leading up to a person’s involvement in the justice system, the length of time a person spends in that system, and the collateral consequences a person will bear once they return to their communities.
Additionally research has shown implicit and explicit biases contribute to these disparities as well. In fact, vast amounts of research show that as you control for variables including age, there are many factors that are statistically linked to worsened outcomes for people of color in the justice system.
One Utah specific example is a recent study on the Pre-Sentence Investigative Report (PSI). The PSI report is an important document submitted to the presiding judge on a criminal case that provides a recommendation of either probation, jail, or prison for an adult individual. This recommendation is based on an individual’s criminal history score, and the severity and type of their most recent offense. Additionally, the individual’s mitigating/aggravating factors are taken into consideration. Based on these factors, the individual is placed in one of three areas of a sentencing matrix, and such information is meant to assist a judge in their decision-making process. In this study, the authors explored the following research question: While controlling for relevant factors, is there a difference in the likelihood of receiving a prison recommendation at the Pre-sentence investigation (PSI) level by race-ethnicity? The conclusion of that study was that even after controlling for these factors, inclduing age, there are still disparities wherein individuals identified as Hispanic/Latino saw an increased chance of getting a prison recommendation versus a more lenient sentence such as probation in comparison to individuals identified as White.
In other words, other factors, including age could not explain away those disparities.
Measuring disparity on the juvenile and criminal justice end takes into account the relative population makeup of the given groups being compared. One such measure is a per capita rate that adjusts a given number of interest relative to the general population count.1 So even if racial and ethnic minorities make up a larger share of the emerging adult group, the disparity measure takes into account the difference in the size of each group’s population. These measures can be calculated by solely focusing on specific age groups. If there was no disparity based on these calculations, then these numbers should be the same. Below is an example comparing prison per capita rates in Utah for non-minorities and minorities using a limited age range 18-35 and all ages. The disparity is clearly shown for both scenarios though slightly reduced when the age range is restricted to ages 18-35 only. This is seen by the relative difference between these two groupings. Either way, the disparity does not disappear. The prison numbers we are using here were from June 2020.
Another way to look for potential disparity is simply comparing relative percentage shares. For example, when we look at the prison population we see the following:
We see that while individuals identified as non-minority make up 78% of the general population, they only make up 59% of the share of the prison population. This equates to a 19% difference. On the other hand, we see that even though individuals identified as minority only make up 22% of the general population share, they make up 36% of the prison population. This equates to a 14% difference.
Though it is natural to consider various factors such as an individual’s age and its potential impact on racial and ethnic disparities, it is critical to ground ourselves within an intersectionality framework when examining the problem of over or under representation in a particular area. Meaning, we cannot solely examine one factor without taking into further consideration how multiple factors intersect and interrelate with one another. The cumulative risk of incarceration when serving time in prison leads to an enduring status that affects life chances after returning to society. And such cumulative risk leads to cumulative inequality which transcends across generations. As the literature indicates, the issue of racial and ethnic disparities have been rigorously studied over many years, yet there have been limited evidence showing we have reached a space of parity in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.
This metric is calculated by taking the actual number of individuals at a point and divided by their general population for each group. Then this ratio is commonly multiplied by 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 depending on the original size of the population. This allows rates to be compared across groups.↩︎