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In sum, evidence from this review of the research and analysis of a recent study of police encounters with youth reveals some evidence of bias, although also some inconsistency in the evidence. Such inconsistencies may arise from variations in police practice by location (e.g., particular city or rural area), variation in police practice over time as policies and administrations change, or even as a consequence of alterations in police behavior when they are under research observation. Methodological problems in this research are a difficult issue, as the problem of potential influence of observation on police behavior is nearly insurmountable, and problems of racial bias in the observations of investigators are also hard to control or assess.
Referrals to Juvenile Justice Intake Units
After the police have encountered youth and have made decisions about whether to continue to process or to divert them, others become involved in the decision-making process. Table 6-4 presents a number of studies that have examined racial disparities at various points in the processing of youth through the juvenile justice system. Despite the fact that existing evidence is fairly limited in quantity and studies vary in methodological rigor, the studies listed in Table 6-4 present a fairly consistent picture. Disparities exist in arrest (6 of 7 studies), intake (4 of 4), detention (6 of 7), counsel (1 of 1), and placement (7 of 7). Adjudication reveals a different pattern, with only one of the studies showing disparity and three not showing disparity.
In one of the largest studies of this topic undertaken so far, Frazier and Bishop (1995) analyzed data from all cases referred to juvenile justice intake units (N = 137,028) in Florida between January 1, 1985, and December 31, 1987. Frazier and Bishop looked at processing at four points— intake (case closure versus formal processing), detention (detention versus release), court referral (prosecutor files petition versus no petition filed), and judicial disposition (community treatment versus residential facilities or transferred to criminal court). In simple bivariate analyses, Frazier and Bishop found that nonwhites were more likely than whites to be (1) referred by intake for formal processing, (2) held in secure detention facilities, and (3) petitioned to court by prosecutors. However, in trying to interpret findings regarding racial disproportionality, it is commonly recognized that analyses need to control for certain factors that influence the decision-making process. For example, the seriousness of a crime obviously affects the decision-making process. Similarly, a youth's prior record would be something that judges and others involved in the decision-making process might take into account. Other factors about the life circumstances of the juvenile, such as living with a single parent or school