Expert Opinion

Disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system

Review of current literature related to disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system and areas for further research.

By Apryl Alexander, PsyD

A recent New York Times piece, entitled “1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” highlighted the disparate incarceration rate of African-American men. In the United States, racial/ethnic minorities are overrepresented within the criminal justice system (e.g., Cabaniss, Frabutt, Kendrick, & Arbuckle, 2006). These findings suggest the presence of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the justice system, a phenomenon that has been widely documented in the literature since the 1960s (Brinkley-Rubinstein, Craven, & McCormack, 2013; Cabaniss, Frabutt, Kendrick, & Arbuckle, 2006; David & Sorenson, 2013; Kakar, 2006; Kempf-Leonard, 2007). More specifically, the concept of DMC references an overrepresentation of racial/ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system comparative to their proportion in the general population (Desai, Falzer, Chapman, & Borum, 2012).

Minority youth are overrepresented at each stage of the juvenile justice system (e.g., Chapman Desai, Falzer, & Borum, 2006; Piquero, 2008). In 1997, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that 62 percent of detained youth in the United States identified as a racial/ethnic minority, whereas only approximately one-third of the juvenile population in the United States was identified as a racial/ethnic minority (Cabaniss et al., 2006). Still, the most overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system has been observed among African-American youth aged 10 to 17, who represent only 16 percent of the total United States juvenile population but account for nearly 30 percent of all cases referred to juvenile courts, over one-third of detained youth and 29 percent of all adjudicated delinquents (Kempf-Leonard, 2007). DMC was such an overwhelming problem by 2002 that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 required states to address DMC at all points of the juvenile justice system. However, even today within the juvenile justice system, race/ethnicity has a distinct impact on processing at multiple decision points, including during interactions with police officers and in the courtroom (Chapman et al., 2006).

Numerous papers have been published that discuss potential contributing factors to DMC. The most commonly identified factors that likely contribute to DMC are: (a) selective enforcement of delinquent behavior, (b) differential opportunities for treatment, (c) institutional racism, (d) indirect effects of socioeconomic factors, (e) differential offending, (f) biased risk assessment instruments, (g) differential administrative practices, (h) unequal access to effective legal counsel and (i) legislative policies that disparately impact youth of color (Kakar, 2006; Nellis & Richardson, 2010). Ultimately, differences in offending by racial/ethnic minorities (i.e., differential involvement), particularly between African-Americans and European-Americans, or the fact that the justice system treats minority youth in different ways (i.e., differential selection) have been the most commonly cited origins of DMC (Kakar, 2006). The theory of differential involvement suggests that ethnic minority youth are actually committing more offenses and are committing offenses that would be categorized as more serious. However, research exploring self-reported delinquency and arrest rates shows that juveniles who identify as a racial/ethnic minority are disproportionately represented in custody despite the evidence that they did not commit more crimes (Davis & Sorenson, 2013). Because DMC is indicated prior to adjudication and during police contacts, this explanation for DMC that racial/ethnic minority youth commit more crimes, and more severe crimes, appears to be biased.

Since 1988, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act has required states receiving funding under the act to determine whether the proportion of minority juveniles in confinement exceeds their proportion in the general population. In 1992, Congress mandated that states demonstrate their efforts to reduce DMC. Unfortunately, states have been provided little guidance on how DMC reduction can be achieved. An example of a successful program aimed at reducing DMC in the juvenile justice system is The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). The JDAI has worked in over 100 sites for more than 15 years to reform juvenile justice systems through supporting detention alternatives. As a result of these efforts, the average daily population of detained youth dropped as much as 65 percent in some jurisdictions, including reducing the detention of minority youth. The initiative has shown significantly fewer minority youth in detention in JDAI sites compared to the numbers before JDAI was working in those jurisdictions . In sum, DMC remains a critical area for research, and further examination of this concept is important to reduce discrimination against minorities for a system intent on achieving justice.


Brinkley-Rubinstein, L., Craven, K. L., & McCormack, M. M. (2013). Shifting perceptions of race and incarceration as adolescents age: Addressing disproportionate minority contact by understanding how social environment informs racial attitudes. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 31, 25-38. doi: 10.1007/s10560-013-0306-4

Cabaniss, E. R., Frabutt, J. M., Kendrick, M. H., & Arbuckle, M. B. (2007). Reducing disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system: Promising practices. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 393-401. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2006.09.004

Chapman, J. F., Desai, R. A., Falzer, P. R., & Borum, R. (2006). Violence risk and race in a sample of youth in juvenile detention: The potential to reduce disproportionate minority confinement. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4, 170-184. doi: 10.1177/1541204006286316

Davis, J., & Sorensen, J. R. (2013). Disproportionate juvenile minority confinement: A state-level assessment of racial threat. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 11, 296-312. doi: 10.1177/1541204012472349

Desai, R. A., Falzer, P. R., Chapman, J., Borum, R. (2012). Mental illness, violence risk, and race in juvenile detention: Implications for disproportionate minority contact. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82, 32-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.2011.01138.x

Kakar, S. (2006). Understanding the causes of disproportionate minority contact: Results of focus group discussions. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34, 369-381. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.05.003

Kempf-Leonard, K. (2007). Minority youths and juvenile justice: Disproportionate minority contact after nearly 20 years of reform efforts. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 5, 71-87. doi: 10.1177/1541204006295159

Nellis, A., & Richardson, B. (2010). Getting beyond failure: Promising approaches for reducing DMC. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 8, 266-276. doi: 10.1177/1541204009361180

Piquero, A. R. (2008). Disproportionate minority contact. The Future of Children, 18, 59-79. doi: 10.1353/foc.0.0013

Wolfers, J., Leonhardt, D., & Quealy, K. (2015, April 15). 1.5 million missing black men. The New York Times. Retrieved from