Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Paul Ketchum has published a new book that addresses the issue of overrepresentation of children of color in the criminal justice system with the release of Disproportionate Minority Contact and Racism in the U.S.: How We Failed Children of Color.
Alongside co-author Mitchell Peck, an associate professor of Sociology at OU, Ketchum details how racial and ethnic inequality in the juvenile justice system appears to be more of a structural issue within the system itself rather than one of individual bias.
The book focuses on determining the cause of disproportionate minority contact (DMC), the overrepresentation of minority youth in the U.S. criminal justice system.
“Proportionate representation would reflect the makeup of society,” Ketchum said. “If 72% of your population is white, you would expect 72% of the juveniles in the juvenile justice system to be white, and so on for every racial or ethnic group. When the actual percentages of juveniles exceed those of the percentage of the total population of their group, that is DMC.”
A key concept addressed in the book is whether minority youth are represented in greater number in the juvenile justice system due to differential involvement—the idea that minority youth are more criminalistic than white youth, and overrepresentation is due to their behavior rather than their treatment by the system—or differential treatment, that minority youth are simply treated differently than white youth by criminal justice professionals.
“Our study shows that minorities are overrepresented at each decision point in the criminal justice system relative to their proportion of society as a whole,” Ketchum said.
While the predominant narrative among criminal justice professionals is that non-white youth are committing offenses at a greater rate than white youth, Ketchum and Peck found that, overall, there was virtually no statistical difference in the rates at which youth of different races commit various offenses. When they did find differences, it was white youth who were more likely to be committing offenses, with the only exception being gang involvement.
“The perception is that we need to fix the kids,” Ketchum said. “Our study is the first in the nation to show, at least in Oklahoma City, that DMC is caused by differential treatment. Differential involvement is not the issue. This is important to note because how you address DMC is dependent upon the cause of it.”
The authors looked at more than 43,000 cases of juveniles from all races who had formal contact with a police officer in the Oklahoma City metro area over an eight-year period. Special attention was paid to what police and court data showed as far as levels of criminality by race—arrests, charges, etc.—and looked at the accuracy of police and court records during that time.
They augmented these records by conducting in-depth interviews with juvenile justice professionals, including police, juvenile court attorneys, judges and probation officers, in addition to more than 500 juvenile self-reports on their own tendencies to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.
They found that official data and self-report data were often not in agreement.
“It turns out that severe criminal acts are committed by a small number of juveniles, only 0.06%. The problem is when they are non-white, our treatment of this is such that anyone else of that racial or ethnic group is presumed to be part of that very small group," Ketchum said.
"Our study found no difference in criminality between white and minority kids. The difference is the amount that are caught or formalized by the criminal justice process. White kids don’t pay the price for a few white kids being extremely criminalistic. If you’re non-white, all of you pay the price for anyone in your group being extremely criminalistic."
They found that while non-white youth were more than 14% more likely to be arrested than white youth when stopped for the same offense, minority juveniles were 41% more likely to have their cases declined or thrown out by the court system.
“These are cases that are generally so overtly racist in nature that they get thrown out,” Peck said. “There is so little there that it is almost a purely race-based charge and is thrown out.”
Minority youth in Oklahoma City received offers for informal probation at a much lower rate, being 34% less likely to be referred than white youth who had committed the same offense. This was especially true when looking at Native American youth, who were 70% less likely to receive informal probation.
Minority youth were also more likely to be formally charged with a crime than white youth.
Of the nearly 3,700 youth who faced criminal charges as part of the study, minority youth were 33% less likely to have their cases dismissed and 8% less likely to receive court-ordered probation than white youth. Minority youth were 37% more likely to be taken into Office of Juvenile Affairs custody than whites, with black youth being 46% more likely to end up in juvenile custody than a white youth who had committed the same offense.
But it is when the youth involved are sentenced as adults by the courts that the greatest disparities in the system become apparent, with minority youth overall found to be more than two and a half times more likely to be sentenced as adults when compared to white youth. Black youth were found to be nearly three times more likely to be sentenced as adults, while Native American youth were more than four times as likely to be sentenced as an adult.
“What’s fascinating to me is that, if you look outside of the criminal justice system—in housing, in education, in healthcare—it’s fairly well recognized that we have these systemic differences that are part of the structure of the system,” Peck said. “Yet we are reluctant to attribute any of this disparity or disproportionate contact to a broken system of policing or the courts. We keep blaming and focusing on the kids instead of fixing the system.”
According to Ketchum, most of the juvenile justice professionals interviewed blamed minority youth for their overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system. Few would admit that non-white youth are policed more stringently than white youth. A significant number viewed the cause of DMC to be based on family issues among minority youth, with “broken” families or families that embrace criminality as an acceptable norm cited as a predominant factor, although no data has ever been found in studies of DMC to back up these beliefs.
Many of those interviewed said the criminal justice system needs to be harsher for juveniles, with most of those who wanted to change the system calling for kids to be treated more like adults. While some of them wanted more opportunities available for kids in order to prevent them from running afoul of the law, few of those interviewed saw the system itself as being the thing that most needs to change.
“There were all kinds of verbal gymnastics used to explain away data when we offered them data during the interviews,” Ketchum said. “They consistently just don’t think there is a problem with the policing and the courts.”
He said criminal justice professionals must be willing to understand that racial and ethnic inequality exists in the juvenile justice system from a structural perspective rather than simply at the level of individual bias before we can begin to implement the kinds of changes needed to reduce DMC.
“Our study found no difference in criminality between white and minority kids,” he said. “The difference is the amount that are caught or formalized by the criminal justice process. White kids don’t pay the price for a few white kids being extremely criminalistic. If you’re non-white, all of you pay the price for anyone in your group being extremely criminalistic.
“We’re hoping that by having all of the data in this book referenced, cross-checked and double-checked that we can finally address DMC. We hope that practitioners, as well as academics, can take away something from this book.”
For information about degree options available in OU’s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program or Master of Science in Criminal Justice program, visit the College of Professional and Continuing Studies website at pacs.ou.edu.