Juvenile Offenders: Race and Ethnicity Essay

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Researchers have long observed differences in rates of serious juvenile and adult offending among ethnic and racial groups in the United States. These differences have prompted competing theoretical interpretations and public policy debates. However, conclusions about the racial differences in serious and violent juvenile offending have been reached primarily using individual-level data that, when used alone, yield incomplete results. Multilevel analyses that consider community and contextual factors have the potential to produce a fuller understanding of the meaning of these differences (, 2002).

This paper will first describe the racial distribution of serious and violent offending among juveniles in the United States. It will provide a picture of the short-term national trends for offending patterns by race and ethnicity and summarize research findings on racial and ethnic differences in chronic juvenile offending. Various explanations are given for the racial and ethnic differences. This paper will include recommendations for improving understandings of these differences and implications for guiding prevention and intervention efforts.

Data from the 1998 UCR indicates that differential rates of arrest for crime are related to race (Snyder, 1999). Arrests of white juveniles (under age 18) constituted 71 percent of all juvenile arrests compared with 26 percent for black youth. American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian or Pacific Islanders account for 1 and 2 percent, respectively (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1999). Black youth were overrepresented, given the fact that they make up 15 percent of the juvenile population compared with 79 percent white and 5 percent other races.

The distribution by index crime type varies, however. Black youth accounted for 42 percent of arrests for violent crime compared with 55 percent for white youth (3 percent were youth of other races). Black youth, when compared with white youth, were most overrepresented in arrests for robbery (54 percent and 43 percent, respectively) and murder and non-negligent manslaughter (49 percent and 47 percent, respectively). Black youth were least disproportionately involved in arson arrests (18 percent and 80 percent, respectively) (Snyder, 1999; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1999).

Juvenile involvement in crime by race has been generally consistent over the past several decades (LaFree, 1995). However, the racial gap in rates of homicide widened dramatically between 1986 and 1994. Black youth were responsible for the majority of the increase in homicides by juveniles in these years and for the majority of the decline thereafter (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999).

If all serious crime is considered, a more complex picture emerges. Between 1983 and 1992, the juvenile arrest rates for all types of violent crimes increased 82 percent among white youth and 43 percent among black youth (Snyder and Sickmund, 1995). The pattern of change was greatest for robbery and homicide arrest rates. In 1983, black youth were approximately five times more likely to be arrested for homicide than were white youth; in 1992, that ratio was more than seven to one.

What is the meaning of these race-specific trends in violence? Blumstein (1995) attributed the growth of youth homicide to illicit drug markets into which youth had been recruited. Juveniles working in these markets armed themselves, and so the use of guns was diffused to other teenagers in the community. The notion of gun diffusion is supported by the concomitant increase in the homicide rate among black juveniles from 1986 to 1994 but has not been supported by other research (Howell, 1997).

More comparative research is needed to understand racial and ethnic differences in rates of offending. In this area of research, a number of case studies were conducted in several U.S. cities in the 1980s among youth of Hispanic ancestry. Between 1980 and 1985, homicide arrest rates for 10 to 17 year old Hispanics in New York City were more than twice those of whites (Rodriguez, 1988). In southern California, the homicide death rate for 15 to 24 year old Latino males during 1980 was more than four times the rate for white Anglo males (Valdez, Nourjah, and Nourjah, 1988).

At the same time in Chicago, Latino males between ages 15 and 19 were homicide victims 4½ times more often than non-Latino white males (Block, 1988). These findings suggest the importance of taking ethnicity into consideration when examining youth violence data.

Another factor to consider when interpreting racial and ethnic differences is the length of time and degree to which youth are involved in serious crime. UCR data are not helpful in this regard. However, a few longitudinal studies have shed some light on this issue using official data. Relying on police data from a 1945 Philadelphia cohort, Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin (1972) found that race and socioeconomic status were related to the frequency and seriousness of offenses. These findings were confirmed using the 1958 Philadelphia cohort. However, more data are needed to fully understand the relationship between race and chronic offending.

Researchers and criminologists have long been aware of racial and ethnic differences in serious juvenile offending. Interpreting these disparities, however, is another matter; no one theory has adequately addressed the reasons for them. Criminologists have not paid enough attention to the extent to which socioeconomic disparity accounts for differences in rates of violence, even though they have tended to attribute high rates of crime to economic disadvantages.

These omissions are in part due to reliance on individual-level data to identify those persons most likely to offend. However, individual-centered research is unlikely to improve understanding of the group differences. It does not take into consideration the larger socio-structural characteristics that distinguish groups and individuals.

For example, the developmental life courses of blacks and whites in the United States are affected by their membership in historically distinct social and economic groups. Community-level research can be used to study this larger context and offer great potential in interpreting the meaning of racial and ethnic differences in offending.


Blumstein, A. 1995. Youth violence, guns, and the illicit-drug industry. Journal of

Criminal Law and Criminology 86(1):10-36.

Howell, J.C. 1997. Youth gang homicides, drug trafficking, and program interventions. In

Juvenile Justice and Youth Violence, edited by J.C. Howell. Thousand Oaks, CA:

Sage Publications, Inc., pp. 115-132.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1999. Crime in the United States 1998. Uniform Crime

Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of


Snyder, H.N. 1999. Juvenile Arrests 1998. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department

of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency


Snyder, H.N., and Sickmund, M. 1995. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A

Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs,

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Snyder, H.N., and Sickmund, M. 1999. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National

Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs,

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Wolfgang, M.E., Figlio, R.M., and Sellin, T. 1972. Delinquency in a Birth Cohort.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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