should focus on all aspects of the juvenile justice system rather than only on confinement (Devine et al., 1998).

Research and social policy on race, crime, and the administration of justice in the United States are currently marked by a seeming conceptual and methodological impasse. This situation stems from efforts by researchers to explain the persistent overrepresentation of groups of racial and ethnic minorities in the juvenile and adult justice systems. Some researchers and commentators have tended to focus on racially disproportionate offending behavior patterns as the primary cause of such a disparity, whereas others have highlighted the persistence of biases among decision makers in the justice system. The most problematic feature of this “behavior versus justice system ” debate has been the suggestion that these can be viewed as alternatives, rather than as processes that feed into one another. Furthermore, much of the debate has been carried out with an exceedingly narrow focus that fails to take account of the role that social injustice has played in the production of crime (Clarke, 1998; Lane, 1986; McCord and Ensminger, in press).

Both selective inattention (ignoring the other point of view) and the either-or approach (mutually exclusive points of view), which have characterized academic and public discourse on race, crime and justice, are problematic in several respects. These explanations not only pose a false dichotomy, but they also oversimplify what is a very complex set of social phenomena. These approaches also detract from increasingly promising efforts by scholars and others to develop and examine more inclusive and complex models that may more fully account for the multiple factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disproportionality in the nation's justice system.

Key Terms

There is considerable confusion and variation in the meaning of terms used to examine and describe the racial disparity in the juvenile justice system. This confusion has contributed to divergent findings regarding the presence or absence of racial bias in the justice system and the tendency to attribute all racial differences in system outcomes to prejudice and bigotry (Walker et al., 1996). Therefore, it is important at the outset of this discussion to define the terms we will use. In this report, we use the terms disparity and disproportionality to refer to situations in which minority group members are either under- or overrepresented relative to their proportion in the general population. There is no judgment about the cause of the observed disparity; it may stem from differences in actual behavior, or from decision making within the system, including legitimate and extralegal factors, or both.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement