No Racial Bias in Response to Juvenile Probation Violations

No Racial Bias in Response to Juvenile Probation Violations

Forensic-Training-AcademyNo systematic pattern of racial discrimination appears to exist post release in the juvenile probation system. However, juvenile justice continues to respond punitively to probation violations instead of focusing on treatment-oriented responses. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2015, Vol. 21, No. 3, 323-337pppl


The Role of Race in Probation Monitoring and Responses to Probation Violations among Juvenile Offenders in Two Jurisdictions


Jordan Bechtold, University of Pittsburgh
Kathryn Monahan, University of Pittsburg
Sara Wakefield, Rutgers University
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California, Irvine


Though many studies have examined racial disproportionality in arrest and sentencing, few have examined disparities once initial sentencing has been completed. We examined racial disparities in responses to juveniles who violate the conditions of a probation sentence. Across 2 sites with diverse ethnic and racial compositions and sentencing regimes, we tested whether probation officers monitored youth differently according to their race or ethnicity, whether judges had differential responses to probation violations for youths of different racial or ethnic groups, and whether a jurisdictional context driven by sentencing guidelines responds differently to violations relative to one with greater flexibility. Although we find some regional differences, no systematic pattern of discrimination toward one particular racial or ethnic group is documented. Finally, our data demonstrate that the most common juvenile justice system response to probation violations in both sites was punitive, and not treatment or otherwise oriented.


racial disparity, juvenile justice, probation violations

Summary of the Research

“In nearly every U.S. state, Black and Hispanic youth are more likely than White youth to be arrested, detained, prosecuted, incarcerated, or transferred to adult centers compared with remaining in juvenile centers. Although differences in criminal involvement explain a large portion of the racial differences evident further down the justice system pipeline, racial disparities in the correctional population often persist even after differences in criminal involvement and arrest rates are taken into account. All of these factors suggest that the sources of racial disparities that arise within the correctional system today likely result from subtle differences in policy implementation, and may occur outside the formal initial sentencing stage” (pp. 323-324)

“In this study, we examine racial disparities in a relatively novel context and stage of the criminal justice system—the monitoring of juvenile offenders by probation officers and official responses to probation violations in the juvenile probation system. In addition to modeling racial disparity in official responses to probation violations, as most researchers do, we focus on the monitoring of youth prior to a violation response, because differential processing of probation violations may rise from differential exposure to surveillance or the surveillance regime” (p.324).

“We examine the role of race in legal decision making across two different jurisdictions in two states with vastly different justice system regimes and demographic contexts. Data from Washington provide an urban site with White, Hispanic, and Black youths, and information gathered from an urban jurisdiction in Louisiana compare the probation experiences of Black and White youth. Official court and probation records were obtained, reviewed, and coded for youth on probation in one county in Washington and one parish in Louisiana. The sample for Washington consisted of 151 youth (79% male; 34.4% White; 33.1% Hispanic; 32.5% Black). The sample for the Louisiana site consisted of 113 youth (72.6% male; 46.9% White; 53.1% Black)” (p.326).

“Although there is widespread evidence of racial disproportionality in justice system involvement, results of the present study suggest that there are few racial disparities in responses to juvenile probation violations. Indeed, in samples with different racial compositions and sentencing regimes, we find no consistent evidence for bias in the response to probation violations: Nearly all youth receive days in secure detention in response to a probation violation. We also find no race or ethnic differences in the type of violation received or in the rate with which youth receive their first violation. Although there were no consistent racial and ethnic differences in the rate with which youth receive their first probation violation, it is noteworthy that more frequent probation officer monitoring is related to sooner violations in both sites. In fact, in both sites, probation officer monitoring is the most robust predictor of the rate with which youth receive a violation” (p.333).

“Our data suggest that the juvenile justice system should concentrate their efforts on alternatives to detention for those who violate probation. It is especially noteworthy that the most common juvenile justice system response to probation violation is overwhelmingly punitive, and not treatment or otherwise oriented. A larger toolbox of possible responses may be more effective in rehabilitating and preventing youth from transitioning to the adult criminal justice system” (p.335).

Translating Research into Practice

“Results from the present study underscore the call by to collect data at multiple sites and at various points along the correctional system pipeline to fully understand the extent to which race shapes responses to youth in the juvenile justice system. Aggregating data across sites may lead researchers to draw inappropriate conclusions or overlook important site-specific disparities” (p.333)

“Although we are unable to comment on the basis of this study whether some types of responses to probation violation were more effective at face value, exclusive reliance on days in secure confinement as punishment is counterintuitive. Detention is intended to keep the public safe from juveniles who may pose danger to the community, and holds juveniles accountable for their behaviors with a more punitive approach. Detention may also be used to temporarily detain individuals who are at risk of failing to appear at an upcoming hearing. Ironically, time in detention has been linked to increased likelihood of recidivating. Furthermore, time in detention can have serious negative effects on youths’ development. Of particular relevance to probation outcomes is that detention may hinder the development of adolescents’ psychosocial maturity, including the ability to act autonomously and control one’s impulses. Although detention is intended to keep the public “safe,” recall that the most common violation in both sites was a school-related violation. Yet the response to violating school-based terms of conditions of probation is to incarcerate: Approximately 36% of those with school violations in Louisiana were required to serve detention days, and approximately 73% of those with school violations in Washington were sentenced to time in detention. Greater variety of response to probation violations may be warranted” (p. 334).

“Given the variability in number of probation violation warnings offered to youth on probation, probation departments should consider designing procedures to formally track probation violation warnings. Departments will also need to develop and implement standardized policies that ensure warnings are distributed in the same manner to similarly delinquent offenders. This will ensure that certain of probationers are not more likely than others to be given a warning prior to the official filing of a violation. Probation departments should also design formal guidelines with regard to the nature and frequency of probation officer contacts as well as formal guidelines regarding the structure and content of contact records. Probation officers should be encouraged to contact their clients a minimum number of times to ensure that clients receive (and participate in) the recommended treatment and services, and to ensure that clients have everything they need to succeed on probation. However, because the data here corroborate the findings from other studies and suggest that the number of times a officer tries to contact his client is one of the best (if not the best) predictor of how soon an offender will receive a probation violation, and the most prevalent response to a probation violation in our study is time in detention, we believe that the number of contacts, and the nature and purpose of these contacts, should be somewhat monitored and standardized. Standardizing is important to ensure that offenders are not differentially exposed to surveillance on the basis of race or other demographic characteristics. Departments should also develop more ways to intervene with noncompliant juvenile offenders so that time in detention is not the only available response to probation violations. It will also be important for probation departments to incentivize officers to accurately and regularly update their contact logs “(pp. 334-335).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Still, the most encouraging (and consistent) finding from the present study is that we do not find systematic bias in the way certain ethnic and racial groups are treated while on juvenile probation, even in contexts in which the literature on adult sentencing disparities suggest may be ripe for discrimination. Consistent with [previous research], we also do not find overwhelming evidence of bias in responses to probation violations (with or without control variables). Although null findings are traditionally problematic, given there are many factors that could cause important group differences to be missed, involvement with the justice system is a context in which it is critical to discuss nonsignificant group differences. The lack of significant race and ethnicity differences in the treatment of youth on probation is particularly interesting given the striking racial disparities that exist in other stages of justice system involvement (e.g., arrest rates, initial sentences, please bargains, prison sentences). Given the overwhelming evidence of racial disparities in some justice system contexts, from a policy perspective, it is crucial to correctly identify the stage, place, and mechanisms that produce these biases” (p. 326).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored By Megan Banford

Megan Banford is a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College. She graduated in 2013 from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. (Honors) and hopes complete a PhD in clinical forensic psychology. Her main research interests include violence risk assessment and management, juvenile offenders and public policy.

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