African-American Disparities In Youth Incarceration

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African-American youth is five times more like to be incarcerated than youth of White and Latino ethnic groups. And although, African-American youth only make up 14% of youth under 18 in the U.S., 43% of African-American boys represent the male population in juvenile facilities, and incarcerated African-American girls make up 34% (Serrano, 2018). These discrepancies are the outcome of many other intersected components besides juvenile delinquency and deviant behavior. For many of these disadvantaged juveniles, their journey begins with their self-perception and how they internalize their race. As they struggle with their roles within society and their psychological and emotional traumas, their family’s socioeconomic status also affects the way they are perceived, accepted and treated not only by the justice system but by the education system as well. As a result, many African-American juveniles wind up victims of the justice system and becoming the status quo in juvenile incarceration.


According to sociologists, race is socially and politically constructed, and it uses particular traits to organize people into hierarchies (Batres Lecture 2019), resulting in inequalities. Since the beginning of time, there has been a stigmatization for African-Americans and their skin color. Since an early age, that stigma is implanted in their self-identity and with time they understand that race will affect their lives and future opportunities in society. In Brinkley-Rubistein, Craven, and McCormack’s study of 2013, a 10-year-old participant stated: “us as African-Americans doesn’t get a lot of privileges.” Young African-Americans seem to accept the idea that individuals of their same race are often criminal offenders. Though it seems many do believe that if they work hard they can be the difference; however, their environment and self-concepts often only give them two alternatives: 1) they beat the statistics and achieve a positive outcome or 2) they fall into the expectations and join the gang and commit their lives to the never ending cycle of deviant behavior, increasing yet their associations with the justice system. As previously stated, African-American children are exposed to early racial internalizations. Since an early age they are taught to think and behave differently because even the simplest of their actions can be criminalized. As they are being taught how to add and subtract, they are also being taught about discrimination and the societal ideals and stereotypes against their race; internalizing that “they are bad people” simply for the color of their skin.

Internalizing stereotypes can cause traumas in early childhood and mold future behaviors. A 2013, study by Kang and Burton showed, that young African-Americans who experienced considerable levels of trauma were more likely to get involved in delinquency. Stereotype theorist suggest that lack of future aspirations can result in disconnection from social institutions, because they fear they may validate preexisting societal stereotypes. (Brinkley-Rubistein, Craven & McCormack, 2013). Moreover, according to the Labeling theory, one internalizes cultural expectations and when an individual is often labeled as deviant, then individual internalizes the idea and acts upon it by taking on the role, resulting in this particular case in delinquency. This is the proclaimed result of the African-American youth, they are criminalized by their skin color since an early age and eventually take on the role that’s society has given them. As they start experiencing life and seeing the limitations society provides, they began disassociating from their race. Cases have been registered in which African-American’s when looking for better opportunities, lie about their ethnic groups on paper, demonstrating the effects of social categorization.

Social Environment

As they take on the delinquent label given by society, they begin their journey in life, and struggle with their roles and self-identity. Many of African-Americans deal with additional life obstacles. Many of the incarcerated youth has experienced living disadvantages in their early lifetime. Income is the most pronounce factor when it comes to equality and inequality, particularly when it comes to race. African-American unemployment is often at high rates as they are often without jobs or have lesser employment opportunities, when compared to other ethnic groups, often depending on public program assistance. In the 2009 study by McCarter, data showed African-American reported an annual family income less than $25,000. It is important to note, the African-American community does not only struggle with race internalization and income inequality but with family as well.

Family structure and human interaction is fundamental for humans. It is often a safety net and when that safety is fractured, many psychological traumas can happen. Recent statistics show many African-American families are broken. And a study was conducted where most whites reported to live in two-parent households, while African-Americans live mostly in a household where mom was the single parent (McCarter 2009). Families who have only a single parent home tempt to struggle financially, and poverty is a predominant factor for delinquency and crime.

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Economic status does not only affect a household, it also affects parenting. The lack of supervision in low-income households is frequent. And the lack of supervision in disorderly neighborhoods has a significant relation to contact with police. For African-Americans living in disorderly neighborhoods, their chances of being stopped and interrogated by police increase (Peirone, Maticka-Tyndale, Gbabedo & Kerr 2017). When African-American youth experience police discrimination as they are being racially targeted and stopped, the propensity of getting involved in deviant behavior increases. Unfortunately, treatment and respect are often given to individuals based on their socioeconomic status. And most of juvenile delinquents live in low-income communities that are often heavily policed, making their delinquency or inappropriate behavior more noticeable. Additionally, African-American youth is often discriminated against when seen unsupervised in public places. When seeing by police or security, it is often assumed they are involved in mischievous behavior and “they must be up to no good” is often the assumption.


Moreover, when children live in broken homes, poverty and little parent supervision their education becomes endangered. The education system is not of excellence in poor neighborhoods and addition to that, the importance of an education is often over looked by household parents who struggle financially, resulting in early drop-outs or grade repetition. A study showed, 39% of African-American males are more likely to repeat a grade, while white males only represent 28.1% of that population (McCarter 2009). Moreover, records show, the education system often criminalizes misbehavior of African-American students when compared to those of white descent. And African-American students also feel targeted during standardized examinations, they feel that based on those test results, the education systems determine how good or bad they are, and that they based those results on the number of prisons the country will build. (Brinklely-Rubisten, Craven & McCormack 2013). In correlation, the lack of education may contribute in juvenile delinquency and school misbehaving.

Even when school retention is attained, African-Americans are suspended more frequently from schools than those of white descent even for the same types of misbehaving. The education systems create exclusionary discipline that increases African-American youth contact with the justice system. African-American students are 1.5 times more likely to get suspended for tobacco-related offenses than white students. However, the higher disproportions are found in cases of weapon offenses by African-American and white students. African-American students who commit the serious violation, experience a 95% out-of- school suspension while the white students only received 85%. (Nicholson-Crotty, Birchmeier & Valentine 2009). The undeniable differences are the result of the racial disproportion referrals to juvenile facilities or boot camps where they are often disciplined like prisoners, creating yet more negative attitudes toward misbehaving African-American students and categorizing them as juvenile criminals.

Justice System

As previously mentioned, living in heavy policed neighborhood (i.e. low-income), their chances of becoming in contact with police increases. Race discrimination relates to high rates of delinquency among African-Americans. Research shows, African-Americans are often discriminated against by police enforcement. A study showed, racial discrimination of African-Americans had a heavy impact on juvenile delinquency (Kang & Burton 2013). Today, police brutally cases are often first-column news and the Black Lives Matter Movement has been crated to bring awareness of the injustices and criminalization of African- Americans. Although, in some cases an individual may have a prior record, a record does not determine who someone is. But it is important to note that crime records do not affect everyone equally. An African-American adult with a prior record can miss out on many job opportunities, while a white person may have a higher possibility of being reincorporated into society once again after serving time. The circumstances do not change when referring to underage delinquents. In the justice system it may seem as if everyone is prosecuted equally and according to the law, however, that may not always be the case. Though everyone is prosecuted, not everyone is sanctioned the same. In a 2009 study, research showed that even if high percentages of juvenile delinquents for both whites and African-Americans are arrested and detained, whites are often diverted during processing (McCarter 2009). Whites are expected to be “the change”, therefore they are given additional opportunities and minor sanctions such as parole, community service and probation to turn their lives around, making black incarceration rates higher than those of white descent. When interviewed, professionals of the justice system, agreed race was indeed a major factor on the decision- making of sanctions and juvenile processing (McCarter 2009). Though, the justice system is supposed to serve the law and its citizens equally, it seems as if much of the decision-making is based on stereotypes, racial profiling, discrimination and racism beliefs.


Discrimination is still a very predominant characteristic of today’s society not only against most minority groups but particularly against the African-American community. According to the research, African-American youth, is more likely to be incarcerated and penalized with harder sanctions than any other ethnic group, including whites. And rather than rehabilitating and targeting the issue from the root by analyzing all the outside elements that causes juvenile delinquency among the African American youth; they are often criminalized and being referred to prison by their own schools. It is time, the education system creates alternatives and free programs to maintain African-American youth in school and keep them engaged. It is time, the laws are changed and reformed where no juvenile under the age of 18 should be tried as adult nor be sent to the juvenile system. It is time, less prisons are created, and more rehabilitation programs are designed to address the issues that matter and their issues and reintegrate juveniles into society once again. Youth is the future of our country; It is time for change.


  1. Batres, C. (2019). Assimilation, Race and Ethnicity [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Blackboard.
  2. Brinkley-Rubinstein, L., Craven, K. L., & McCormack, M. M. (2013). Shifting Perceptions of Race and Incarceration as Adolescents Age: Addressing Disproportionate Minority Contact by Understanding How Social Environment Informs Racial Attitudes. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal,31(1), 25-38.
  3. Kang, H., & Burton, D. L. (2014). Effects of Racial Discrimination, Childhood Trauma, and Trauma Symptoms on Juvenile Delinquency in African American Incarcerated Youth. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma,23(10), 1109-1125.
  4. McCarter, S. A. (2009). Legal and Extralegal Factors Affecting Minority Overrepresentation in Virginia’s Juvenile Justice System: A Mixed-Method Study. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal,26(6), 533-544.
  5. Nicholson-Crotty, S., Birchmeier, Z., & Valentine, D. (2009). Exploring the Impact of School Discipline on Racial Disproportion in the Juvenile Justice System. Social Science Quarterly,90(4), 1003-1018.
  6. Peirone, A., Maticka-Tyndale, E., Gbadebo, K., & Kerr, J. (2017). The Social Environment of Daily Life and Perceptions of Police and/or Court Discrimination among African, Caribbean, and Black Youth. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice,59(3), 346-372.
  7. Serrano, A. (2018). Juvenile Injustice: Racial Disparities in Incarceration Start Early. Retrieved from
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