Juvenile Crime And Race And Delinquency Criminology Essay

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"Juvenile crime touches millions of people in the United States each year, imposing substantial cost on society."(Jacob and Lefgren, 2003, p. 1560) "The rate at which juveniles were arrested for violent crimes rose 79 percent between 1978 and 1993"(Levitt, 1998, p. 1156). "In 1997, law enforcement officials arrested 2.8 million people under the age of 18" (Jacob and Lefgren, 2003, p.1560). Minorities represent a significant portion of those arrested. Years of data show that "crime rates among minorities, especially blacks, consistently dwarfing those among whites."(Piquero, 2008, p. 60). This is why the United States' criminal justice system is often accused of being racist. African-Americans are disproportionately sentenced to death, make up the bulk of the prison population, and are subjected to daily ignominies such as harassing traffic stops. That there is a higher crime rate in largely African-American urban communities is seldom disputed, but the causes and proper responses to that problem are hotly debated. Many analyses focus on African-American youth, on whom the overall future of the black community depends, but whose individualized futures are at risk for a variety of reasons.

While the population of the United States is only 13% African-American, it is estimated that 53% of youths punished for juvenile offenses in the U.S. are African-American (Leunes, 1996, p. 699). Race, then, has been found to be a significant predictor of juvenile criminal behavior. However, race is believed to be confounded with socioeconomic status and urban environment (Bryant, et al, 1995, p. 77). Researchers have also determined that other characteristics are associated with a continuity of antisocial behavior: early age of onset, frequency of behaviors, variety of behaviors, and variety of settings in which they occur are all predictors that service agencies could possibly use to screen at a relatively early age for potentially persistent delinquency (Bryant, et al, 1995, p. 77).

Chavaria (1997) documented that disruptive and antisocial tendencies are most malleable at early ages, becoming more intractable by early adolescence. "Malleability also implies that young people are especially susceptible to external influences."(Bishop, 2000, p.83) Winters (1997) found that learning disabilities and poor educational performance were strong predictors of juvenile delinquency. The U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment conducted a comprehensive review of factors associated with delinquency, as part of a report on adolescent health. This review reported that demographic factors, such as age, gender, and race are associated with increased rates of delinquency. Adolescents with low IQ or learning disabilities have higher rates of delinquency (Bryant, et al, pp. 77-78). Scherer, et al (1994) investigated a variety of family factors in relation to delinquency, including poor disciplinary practices, family criminal behavior, poor marital relations, and parental absence. The strongest predictor of juvenile delinquency, however, is past juvenile delinquency, or recidivism.

Recidivism refers to an offender's relapse into criminal behavior, often after receiving sanctions or undergoing an intervention for a previously committed crime. Often the single best indicator of future involvement in crime is past involvement in crime. The unreciprocated question, however, is whether prior criminal behavior alone is the major perpetrator, or whether there is variable that interjects to enhance the possibility for future criminal behavior. There are grounds that the criminal justice system is little more than a school of crime, in which young first-time offenders and serious career criminals are incarcerated together. This introduces the first-time offender to the idea of crime as a career, as well as learning how to become better criminals (Leunes, p. 700). This could be the key to understanding the differing incarceration rates for African-Americans and Caucasians as adults. If African-American youths are more likely to be punished as youths, then the influence of recidivism would make it more likely that they will be introduced to crime as a career. Thus, while racism may pervade the entire criminal justice system, its effects may be most dangerous in the area of juvenile treatment.

"Sentencing young offenders as adults increases the number of chronological juveniles confined in adult prisons and poses substantial challenges"(Feld, 1998, p. 190). Given the evidence that past criminal behavior is a strong predictor of future criminal behavior, along with the notion that the criminal justice system often serves as a school of crime from which young offenders graduate to criminal careers, it is important to examine how youths are first introduced to crime. "Most studies show that males commit more delinquent acts than do females, especially serious crimes ." (Cernkovich and Giordano, 1979, p. 132) It is common for young teens, especially teen boys, to engage in crazy antics which can border on criminal behavior. Drug use, alcohol consumption, and petty theft are sometimes rites of passage for teen boys. Since this is somewhat common behavior among youths, this behavior may not be a good indication of future criminal behavior. The intervening variable may be involvement with the criminal justice system. That is, youths who are caught and punished for early criminal behavior are more likely to engage in future criminal behavior than those who are not caught and punished. The element of racism enters the equation here. If Caucasian youths are more likely to be treated leniently by authorities, while African-American youths are treated harsher and handed over for judicial punishment, this could go a long way toward explaining the higher adult crime rates among African-Americans than among Caucasians.

This leads, then, to three separate hypotheses. The first will examine the level of minor criminal activity engaged in by both African-American and Caucasian youths, the second will seek to determine whether there is a difference in official responses to minor criminal activity by African-American and Caucasian youths, and the third will quantify the relationship between early involvement with the criminal justice system and future, more serious criminal activity. Formally stated, these hypotheses are:

H1: There will be no difference in the level of minor criminal activity engaged in by African-American and Caucasian teenage boys.

H2: African-American youths will be significantly more likely to be treated severely for minor criminal activity than will Caucasian youths.

H3: Youths who are treated severely for minor criminal offenses are more likely to participate in serious criminal offenses than are youths who are treated leniently.


For this study a two-group design with a single sample will be utilized. The data will be collected through a survey administered to a sample drawn from a population of teenage boys at several high schools. There are three separate dependent variables and two distinct independent variables. Data will be analyzed by analysis of variance (ANOVA).

Variables. The dependent variable for H1 is level of criminal activity engaged in. This will be measured by a four point scale. No criminal activity will be at the lowest level. The next level will be minor criminal activity. It will include occasional truancy, occasional drug and alcohol use, minor vandalism such as "tagging" or breaking windows, or occasional theft of small items such as candy and cigarettes. Moderate activity will include frequent truancy, drug use and alcohol consumption, theft of small items up to $50 in value, and more serious vandalism of up to $100 in property damage. Heavy activity will include anything more serious than the offenses not covered in the first three levels of the scale. The independent variable for this hypothesis is the race of the subject. Although the hypotheses specifically relate to the differences between African-American and Caucasian youths, the race variable will include Hispanic, Asian, and other categories.

The dependent variable for H2 is the level of leniency or severity of response by the criminal justice system to youthful criminal behavior, while the independent variable is once again race. The dependent variable will be measured on a four point scale. No Action Taken for the criminal behavior be at the lowest level on the scale. Next will be Reprimand. The third level is Adjudication, in which the criminal behavior led to a official hearing and any type of administrative punishment. The fourth level is Incarceration, in which the behavior led to detention in any criminal justice facility for more than 24 hours. The highest level of response indicated by an individual for any criminal offense will be taken as the final measure of this variable. In other words, a subject who had no action taken on most of his behavior, but was reprimanded once and adjudicated once will be scored as Adjudicated.

The dependent variable for H3 is serious criminal behavior. This is a dichotomous variable and will be measured by whether a subject committed any felony after the age of 16. The independent variable is the response of the criminal justice system to youthful criminal behavior. This will be measured the same as in H2.

Population and Sample Selection. The population to be studied is young males between the ages of 16 and 18. The sample will be drawn from three different high schools. One school will be in an urban area, a second will be in a suburban area, and the third will be in a rural area. The target sample drawn from each school will be n=30, for a total size of at N=90. From the pool of volunteers, a semi-random sample will be drawn. The sample will not be perfectly random because actions will be taken to make sure that the sample's racial composition roughly matches the racial make-up of the schools. Anonymity will be guaranteed for all information supplied by all student volunteers.

Data. A survey instrument will be constructed for the collection of the data. Each survey will have a unique identification number and no data that can identify the respondent will be collected. The first section of the survey will collect demographical data, including: age, race, and school attended.

The next section would consist of personal information. It will start asking innocuous questions such as hobbies, preferred type of music, and favorite sports teams. This is designed to allow the respondent to feel comfortable with the survey and to have them open up about themselves. It will transition into questions about parties and alcohol use, then drug use, truancy, and vandalism. These questions will focus on the subjects' behavior as young teens before adolescence. This section will conclude with questions about whether the behaviors continued, and if more serious offenses had ever been committed, whether they had been caught at these or not, and whether the activities were ongoing.

Volunteers will be able to complete the surveys at their leisure and locked collection boxes will be placed in convenient locations for completed surveys to be dropped. This will aid in assuring the anonymity of the respondents.

Data Analysis. Each hypothesis considers only a single independent variable, but these are differences between multiple groups (African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian for H1 and H2; severity of treatment on a four point scale for H3). Single-factor analysis of variance, or one-way ANOVA, is the proper statistical test of significance for these hypotheses.


There are three separate dependent variables. The first two consist of ordinal level data, the third consists of nominal level data. The first dependent variable is Level of Criminal Activity Engaged in. It is ordinal level, measured on a four point scale consisting of 1 = No Criminal Activity, 2 = Minor Criminal Activity, 3 = Moderate Criminal Activity, and 4 = Heavy Criminal Activity. The second dependent variable is Severity of Response by the Criminal Justice System to Youthful Criminal Behavior. This is also ordinal level, measured on a four point scale from 1 = No Notice Taken, 2 = Reprimand, 3 = Adjudication, and 4 = Incarceration. The third dependent variable is Serious Criminal Behavior After Age 16. It is nominal level and is measured as 0 = No Commission and 1 = Commission.

The analysis used for each hypothesis will be one-way ANOVA. ANOVA allows for the testing of differences between two or more groups. The first two hypotheses will be tested for differences on the basis of ethnicity, which will consist of four groups (African-American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic). The third hypothesis will be tested for differences on the basis of severity of response by the criminal justice system, also consisting of four groups (No Action Taken, Reprimand, Adjudication, and Incarceration). Thus, one-way ANOVA is the proper statistical test.

For H1, the ANOVA will examine whether there are differences in the self-reported delinquent behavior by African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asians. It is expected that there will not be any significant differences in this behavior by ethnicity.

For H2, ANOVA will measure whether there are differences in the response of the criminal justice system to criminally delinquent behavior by African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asians. It is expected that African-American youths will be significantly likely to experience a more severe response than will Caucasian youths. Hispanics and Asians are also expected to experience more severe responses, but no significant differences are hypothesized or predicted.

H3 will examine whether youths who are severely treated for delinquent behavior are more likely to commit more chronic criminal offenses later on than those who are treated with leniency. ANOVA will evaluate differences in the chronic criminal behavior that is committed later by groups who received No Action (least severe treatment), Reprimand, Adjudication, or Incarceration (most severe treatment) for their juvenile delinquency. It is predicted that youths who received more severe responses will be significantly more likely to engage in later serious criminal behavior.


Assuming that all three hypotheses are supported, the findings would be very important on two significant levels. The first area of importance would be the youth intervention theory. It would mean that recidivism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, by severely punishing some forms of juvenile delinquency, we are actually increasing the chances that more serious criminal behavior will occur at a later date. A second area in which the findings are relevant is the area of race relations. If officials in authority are indeed harder on African-American youths than on Caucasians, then they are contributing to the mass incarceration of African-American males on a national level. Once again, this will require focusing more effort on alternative strategies.

Internal validity is the degree to which a design accurately measures the effects under consideration and no other effects. There is one major threat to internal validity in this study. It is the question of racism in the criminal justice system. It covers the entire study. If the hypotheses are supported, then the findings will show that there is no difference in the juvenile delinquent behavior of African-American and Caucasian youths other than the way that behavior is responded to by authorities. It would further demonstrate that severe treatment of such behavior is directly related to later criminal activity. Then logically it would follow that the unequal treatment of African-American youths is a major cause of later behavior. However, it will not necessarily follow that racism is the culprit. Other factors may be the cause of this unequal treatment. This study did not examine or consider any such other factors, so any conclusion about racism could be confounded. Future studies might include samples of criminal justice professionals in order to get a better grasp on other factors in general and on the role of racism in particular.

External validity is the degree to which research findings are generalizable beyond the sample which was studied. If a sample is not truly representative of the whole population, then the findings from a study can be said to be true only for that sample, and not as a general conclusion. For this study, the sample will be drawn from a cross section of high schools in order youths from different environments. However, better care might be taken to ensure that the samples are proportionally drawn. That is, if too many subjects are drawn from rural communities, the results may be skewed one way, while if too many subjects are drawn from urban schools, results may be skewed another. Also, if the majority of Caucasian subjects are drawn from rural schools while the majority of African-Americans are drawn from urban schools, then the results may be confounded by environmental factors. Future research could examine each type of school separately, rather than by attempting to test them together.

If some of the hypotheses are supported but not others, then different conclusions can be drawn. For example, if H2 is rejected and it is found that there are no significant differences in the treatment of African-American and Caucasian delinquents by authorities, yet H3 is accepted and it is found that early punishment leads to later crime, then the importance of changing early intervention strategies remains valid. If, on the other hand, both are rejected, then there would be no logical link to be made at all between them.

Of the three hypotheses, the rejection of H3 would be the most interesting. H1 and H2 are derived primarily based on assumptions about racism in America. H3, on the other hand, was derived based on previous research on delinquency and recidivism. If it is rejected, then it could mean that when prior criminal behavior is involved, recidivism may not be a concern. This means that severe punishment might be the best option for delinquents.

However, H3 possibly suffers from an internal validity problem. Severity of Response by the Criminal Justice System to Youthful Criminal Behavior is the independent variable for H3. H2 is designed to show that there are racial differences in severity of treatment, but all of the possible causes for differences in this treatment are not accounted for. For example, parent's income and urban environment could contribute to the differences. Randomization of a representative sample is the means by which possible confounding factors are controlled. As noted above, however, the sample for this study may have been neither representative nor random (this, again, is also an external validity problem). Future studies should either examine individual schools in specific environments or take a national sample that takes into account all environments together.