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Jurisdictions across the nation are facing the seemingly intractable phenomenon of the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system, known in the social scientific literature and policymaking circles as disproportionate minority contact (DMC). Research has identified several factors that seem to foster disproportionate minority contact, including selective enforcement; differential opportunities for treatment; institutional racism; indirect effects of socioeconomic factors; differential offending; biased risk assessment instruments, and differential administrative practices. The factor most important to the work outlined here is the unintended consequence of decision making from the point of initial police contact through to a judge’s final disposition.

In 2010, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Youth Justice (CYJ), in partnership with the New York City Criminal Justice Coordinator’s Office and with technical assistance from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, was awarded a grant to help the city develop a strategic plan aimed at reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color in the city’s juvenile justice system. A first step of this work was to form a cross-agency and community-inclusive committee (the DMC Working Group) that would examine the policies and practices of key juvenile justice decision points in order to identify any racial inequities that might exist and to develop recommendations to address these disparities.

The diversity in membership of the DMC Working Group was crucial to this reform effort, as the recommended strategies will necessarily build on the knowledge and insight of a range of stakeholders in the juvenile justice system. Among these stakeholders are city government agency representatives, service providers, advocates, youth, and community representatives.
In order to drive and inform the recommendations of the working group, Vera has conducted DMC research to help identify the differences between racial and ethnic groups at multiple system points. Using data from the city’s Juvenile Justice Research Database (JJRDB) and data requested from several city agencies, Vera, in collaboration with several members of the working group, has conducted analyses that assessed the city’s juvenile justice trends through a racial lens. The system points focused upon included arrest, probation adjustment, the front door of detention, and detention at arraignment. Some of the more notable findings from these analyses indicated that black and Latino youth are more likely to be brought to detention by the police upon arrest; that the majority of these police admissions were released the next day; and that (regardless of race) some low- and mid-risk youth that did not have a high charge severity were being detained at arraignment.

Drawing from these findings and others (presented at the DMC Working Group’s monthly meetings), stakeholders identified several recommendations to be included in the strategic plan. Examples of some of the broader recommendations being considered for the strategic plan include examining the front door of detention more closely; continuing to develop strategies to decrease the unnecessary use of detention for low- and mid-risk youth who don’t pose a danger to public safety; and improving data capacity and transparency.

In addition to these quantitative efforts, CYJ sought additional funding to support more comprehensive, qualitative research. Because research support for the DMC Working Group is critical to the development of a DMC reduction strategy, it is important not only to identify aggregate trends, but also to assess the possible reasons for and implications of these trends. To this end, Vera will conduct focus groups with both youth and members of New York City community-based advocacy organizations who have a stake in helping to combat DMC and have a general interest in reforming the juvenile justice system. While the examination of patterns in the data have allowed us to identify points in the system where differences among races are most pronounced, it does not allow us to examine why these differences exist or how these differences affect youth and communities. Those components of the research are currently underway.