Implicit Bias, Black Youth, and the Juvenile Justice System

Implicit Bias, Black Youth, and the Juvenile Justice System

By Abbi Stephens

One of the main goals of the juvenile justice system is to maintain public safety and ensure justice when crimes are committed (Peck & Jennings, 2016). However, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice,  “Studies show that youth of color are sanctioned more punitively than white youth who have committed the same offense, even given similar offense histories” (Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources, 2010). For example, white youth possess and use illegal drugs more frequently than youth of color, but youth of color are more often incarcerated for possession and illegal drug use (Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources, 2010).

As of 2013, Black youth were four times more likely to enter into the juvenile justice system than other youth (Rovner, 2016). Black youth in America made up about 16% of the population in 2013 but made up 40% of the overall juveniles in the justice system, while white youth made up 56% of the American population, but only 32% of the juveniles in the justice system (Rovner, 2016). Nationwide, Latino youth are 1.5 times as likely as white youth to be detained, ranging up to 3 times as likely in six states ((Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources, 2010). For American Indian youth, they have the highest rate of over-representation in the juvenile justice system (Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources, 2010). There has been research over the individual factors that could cause the difference in over-representation, including poverty, poor social adjustment, and family. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice identifies “system failures and unequal treatment of youth from similar circumstances” as the reason that a youth’s race or ethnicity plays such as large role in their potential involvement in the juvenile justice system (Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources, 2010).

How do youth become involved in the juvenile justice system?

Becoming involved in the juvenile justice system can start with either law enforcement or school systems. For youth under the age of 18, there are three types of crimes that can be committed to start the involvement with the juvenile justice system: youth can commit a felony offense, a misdemeanor offense, or a status offense. Each state has the criteria for each offense laid out in a manual. A status offense is an action that is only prohibited to a class of people, typically youth. For example, a status offense would include truancy or leaving home without permission.

The school system has the ability to send truancy reports directly to the prosecutor. Otherwise, law enforcement is called or sees the crime. For youth, there is an intake coordinator at the detention center that helps determine if the youth should be detained or not. If the youth is detained, they are taken to the detention center and required to be seen in court for a detention hearing within 48 hours. If they are not detained, police officers will send their report to the prosecutor, who determines if they are going to file charges or not. For more information, visit a Guide to the Juvenile Justicewas written by the Youth Law T.E.A.M. of Indiana here.

Implicit Bias and the Juvenile Justice System

There are many individuals that have a hand in the pot with the process of the criminal justice system, which in return allows for individual bias to creep into the outcomes for youth of color individuals. “Attempts to better understand and mitigate the impacts of implicit racial bias are key to building confidence in the criminal justice system across all communities and ensuring that the administration of justice is perceived as fair and equitable for all” (Maryfield, 2018).

First, there may be bias from people in community that call the police on youth. A community member may call the police due to their own bias of youth of color. The report may be ill-informed due to their bias getting in the way. This is called “profiling by proxy” (Bowman, Fridell Sandra Brown, & Love-Craighead, 2015). As Yahr (2020) states, being reported to police for doing perfectly legal things is an experience all too familiar for those of color.

Second, the police officer who is called may also have bias. Police officers are considered our gatekeepers; they determine if they are going to arrest or if they are going to release and whether or not to refer someone to the justice system. A police officer’s implicit bias can influence if the child is brought into the juvenile justice system. Studies have shown that Black youth are twice as likely to be stopped by the police than similarly behaved white youth (Peck & Jennings, 2016).

If the youth is brought into the justice system, there are then prosecutors, attorneys, and judges that help determine what is next for the youth. As a team, they work to decide the youth’s future and the involvement required in the criminal justice system. Their individual biases can influence whether the youth will be placed on a diversion program, formal probation, have the charges dropped, or be suspended to Department of Corrections (Maryfield, 2018).

Last, the probation officers, diversion program staff, or facility staff also have bias. Diversion programs are programs that allow youth to not be in secure detention but still allow them to have supervision, such as electronic monitoring. The racial bias of diversion program or other staff members can affect further violations, a youth’s success in the programs, and can play a factor into the child’s likelihood to re-offend (Bell, Rasquiza, Harris, & Benton, 2014, pg. 7).

The above examples all demonstrate how individual biases contribute to institutional racism. Institutional racism refers to the differential treatment of minorities that affect their access, opportunities, and power in society and in different circumstances (Racial and ethnic disparities across the juvenile justice system, 2020). Institutional racism is not limited to the justice system and is experienced in nearly every system people of color encounter. With the juvenile justice system, the higher rate of youth of color involved in the system is a result of institutional racism. All aspects of the juvenile justice system have to reduce racial bias in order for the institutional racism to decline.

What Is Being Done?

  1. Risk Assessments- risk assessments have started being implemented to try and assess a youth’s risk of recidivism and to help make a decision of how much supervision is needed for an individual. The rate of recidivism is the likeliness that the youth commit another crime in the future.
  2. Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative- Coming out of the Annie E Casey Foundation, this is made up of system stakeholders and juvenile justice practitioners that work together to make a more fair, equitable justice system. There are over 40 states that have these groups. They have eight core values that guide their practices that you can find here.
  3. Implicit Bias Trainings- there are more trainings being offered to police officers, court officials, probation officers, and educators that help bring implicit bias to light and have the conversation over how each person’s biases effect our decisions and impact those they work with.

Take Action:

  • Learn more about racism and the juvenile justice system:
  • Watch 13th, a documentary on Netflix about the prison industrial complex, including how the juvenile justice system plays a role in mass incarceration.
  • Support #BlackLivesMatter and always look for more opportunities to become informed on racial justice issues such as the juvenile justice system.


Bell, Z., & Rasquiza, A. (2014, January). Implicit Bias and Juvenile Justice: A Review of the Literature (1358311519 994085882 M. Harris & 1358311520 994085882 H. Benton, Eds.). Retrieved from…

Bowman, T., Fridell Sandra Brown, L., & Love-Craighead, A. (2015, April 21). Avoiding ‘profiling by proxy’. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Facts and Resources. (2010, October). Retrieved May 05, 2021, from…

Maryfield, B. (2018, December). Implicit Racial Bias. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

Peck, J. H., & Jennings, W. G. (2016). A critical examination of “being Black” in the juvenile justice system. Law and Human Behavior, 40(3), 219–232.

Racial and ethnic disparities across the juvenile justice system. (2020). Retrieved March 19, 2021, from

Rovner, J. (2016, April 14). Racial disparities in youth commitments and arrests. Retrieved March 18, 2021, from

Yahr, N. (2020, September 16). Unreasonable suspicion: When residents call police, who pays the price when bias shapes their concerns? Retrieved April 28, 2021, from…



Black Lives Matter

A Guide to the Juvenile Justice