Race and the Juvenile Justice System

Race and the Juvenile Justice System

A team of OU researchers recently wrapped up a year-long study of minority representation in the state’s juvenile justice system.

The research team, led by College of Liberal Studies professor Dr. Paul Ketchum, was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs and the State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of an ongoing federal core requirement.

Ketchum said the three purposes of conducting the research were to 1) determine the degree of minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice systems of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton; 2) explore some of the possible causes; and 3) develop solutions that are both feasible and cost effective.

Officially named the “Assessment of Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Oklahoma Juvenile Justice System,” the grant was awarded to OU in November 2010, and funds ran from Jan. 1, 2011, through Dec. 31, 2011.

Data collection

The study was off and running quickly, starting with a quantitative analysis of data. This included analyses of the juvenile online tracking system, the case-based management system used by the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, and municipal court data.

“With this data, we also looked at areas such as gender and poverty in addition to race,” Ketchum said. “That way, we could tell where race really mattered.”

Ketchum said the team found that non-Asian minorities were overrepresented at every decision point in the areas included in the study – Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton. This was true even when controlling for type of crime.

Municipal court data was included as a possible decision point contributing to disproportionate minority contact, or DMC. Researchers wanted to study whether DMC may have been the decision to send juveniles to municipal court rather than juvenile court, which would then impact the individual’s prior record, a well-documented contributor to DMC.

Other data included community disadvantage indexes, which summarize the general socio-economic conditions of an area. Juvenile arrest data and crime location data were also included.


For the second part of the study, the research team conducted semi-structured interviews using trained interviewers. Interviews were held with police officers, juvenile probation officers, attorneys (district attorneys, juvenile public defenders and private defense attorneys) and juvenile court justices from the three metropolitan areas in the study.

The interviews were designed to examine the impact of subtle/overt bias, institutional/procedural bias and social factors which may contribute to DMC at different decision points in the juvenile justice system.

The research team included Dr. Ketchum; Dr. B. Mitch Peck, OU Department of Sociology; Dr. John Duncan, OU College of Liberal Studies; Dr. Kelly Damphousse, Associate Dean, OU College of Arts and Sciences; and Sebastian Davis, M.S.W., Hunter Davis and Associates. Trained research assistants and undergraduates also conducted interviews.

Initial results

Ketchum said the team found that non-Asian minorities were overrepresented at every decision point in the areas included in the study – Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton. This was true even when controlling for type of crime.

“Basically, we looked at two general explanations for minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system,” Ketchum said. “The first explanation, differential treatment, suggests that minorities are treated more harshly simply because of their race. We found significant support for subtle bias from many of the juvenile justice professionals. It should be noted that none of the participants said anything to suggest that they were racist, just very consistent subtle biases and stereotypes.

“We also found support for differential involvement, which suggests that minorities may actually commit crimes at a higher rate. Interviews and mapping of arrest areas suggest that poor, minority neighborhoods, more so than any others, lack opportunities such as safe places to play and hang out, and access to responsible mentors and jobs for minors. This may contribute to minority youth committing crimes at a higher rate.”


Dr. Paul Ketchum, who studies the impact of race in juvenile justice.1) Standardization of juvenile justice data – for example, how “race” was collected varied dramatically in each jurisdiction.

“In some areas, officers choose from a set of racial/ethnic groups, though those choices vary by agency,” Ketchum said.

“In other instances, the juveniles are asked to choose a category. ‘Mixed race’ and ‘Hispanic’ seem to be the least consistent, with ‘mixed race’ often being ignored by those filling out the designation on behalf of the juvenile. ‘Hispanic’ is sometimes recorded, and sometimes not. This is most significant as DMC may be greater than some numbers suggest if a large number of those listed as ‘white’ are actually perceived as ethnic minorities. The result is an odd collection of sometimes overlapping categories.

2) Further research into disproportionate minority contact – Specifically, a multi-year study of self-report delinquent and criminal behavior. Utilizing a broad, representative cross-section of Oklahoma youths would not only clarify the extent of differential involvement in juvenile delinquency and crime; it would also help in the design of targeted preventative programs.

3) Further research in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods to both determine a) the need for services and resources, and b) the most cost-effective way to deliver those services and resources.

“We acknowledge that such an undertaking would expand well beyond the sphere of influence of the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,” Ketchum said. “We believe that coordination between multiple local and state agencies is necessary to effectively impact DMC at the neighborhood level.

“As an example, this research could be coordinated with local and state education representatives with an eye toward either selectively extending school days or utilizing school properties as existing location resources for juvenile programs at the community level.”

4) Training for juvenile justice professionals – well beyond the traditional cultural sensitivity training to mitigate existing bias.

“Training should be required on a regular basis and should incorporate racial and cultural differences and social inequality. We further suggest that this training model encourages the participants to discover how race operates through regular participation in community events and services across racial and ethnic lines.”

5) Programs and policies designed to a) draw greater numbers of minority applicants for all juvenile justice system positions, and b) encourage the development of programs and policies that encourage/reward juvenile justice professionals to live in racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

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The College of Professional and Continuing Studies is a fully accredited academic unit of the University of Oklahoma, offering 100% online, hybrid and onsite degrees for working adults and non-traditional students.