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The subject of race and sentencing has always been a prevalent one in the US. The society is split into two groups regarding the issues surrounding racism in the justice system. Some believe that the current judicial and sentencing model is inherently prejudiced towards races of color, while others sustain that there is no prejudice at all. This issue becomes particularly sensitive when it comes to juvenile crimes. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the reasons why juveniles of color have higher rates of contact with the police, and propose correctional policies based on principles of restorative justice.
Juveniles of Color and Police Contact Rates
In order to understand why juveniles of color are more likely to have trouble with the law, we need to look at the problem through the lens of criminology. Cultural deviance theory attributes juvenile delinquency to various factors that have an influence on children, teenagers, and young adults. These factors are (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2012):
- Deteriorating neighborhoods
- Inadequate social control
- Conflict between social goals and means of achieving them
These three factors, when combined, create numerous deviant subcultures, which are appealing to teenagers and turn them into juvenile delinquents. Stanford News reports that most African-American and Hispanic families tend to live in poorer neighborhoods (Andrews, 2015). Poor neighborhoods mean weaker schools, poor social security, and increased crime rate. This creates a negative cycle.
Labeling theory, on the other hand, focuses on the public perception of races of color. There are many negative stereotypes surrounding African-Americans and Hispanics. Young men and women of these races are perceived as inherently more prone to violence and crime, which causes the rest of the society to view them with suspicion. The juveniles, in return, start perceiving themselves in a similar way and adopt the label, becoming criminals the society expects them to be. This mechanism is fully explained by Symbolical Interactionism theory – one of the prevalent theories in modern sociology (Labeling theory, 2016). The police are not immune from labeling, as it happens on a subconscious level. There were numerous cases recorded by the press, where young men and women of color were stopped and searched by the police just because they looked “suspicious.” These incidents contribute to the number of contacts between the police and juveniles of color. Poverty, social insecurity, and stereotyping are the reasons why juveniles of color are more likely to turn to crime and have more encounters with the police.
Juveniles of Color and Juvenile Justice Process
Numerous sources report that young men and women of African-American and Hispanic descent are treated harshly at every stage of juvenile justice process – from arrest to incarceration (Racial-ethnic fairness, 2016). At the same time, the police officers often justify their actions by saying that juveniles of color are more violent and prone to resisting arrest. This problem mirrors the overall situation surrounding juvenile delinquency – the police expects the juveniles to resist arrest and provide no cooperation, while the juveniles expect the police to treat them poorly no matter what they do. This issue relates to Labeling theory. Non-African or Hispanic juvenile delinquents, on the other hand, are often perceived as relatively docile until proven otherwise, which is why they are not treated as harshly.
Juvenile Delinquency and Restorative Justice
Studies report that current juvenile justice system does not work as intended. Children sentenced for juvenile delinquency return as mature criminals, having been molded to become such by the prison system and the society at the same time (Beauchamp, 2013). The reasons for that are numerous. A prison is a punishment facility. It is meant to remove criminals from society rather than re-educate and reform them. While such a concept is understandable for violent offenders like murderers and rapists, the majority of the prison population in the US is incarcerated for non-violent crimes.
The concept of restorative justice suggests a different way for all juvenile delinquents that face punishments for crimes that can be considered negligible. It revolves around repaying the victims, earning their trust, asking for forgiveness, and undoing the damage that dealt with them (Tutorial: Introduction to restorative justice, 2016). Of course, this concept is not universal – not all victims are willing to forget or forgive, especially if the crime involved violence. However, restorative justice would be applicable for such crimes like theft, drug abuse, vandalism, and other similar offenses. The mission of the restorative justice process is to return the delinquents to the society without ostracizing them and pushing them towards crime. It is much more humane than forcing children who made a mistake to spend the best years of their lives behind bars.
Juvenile delinquency and prejudice towards race are some of many problems in the US justice system. Poverty, social vulnerability, and public scorn give birth to juvenile gangs which stand in opposition to the society that despises them. In order to stop this cycle and save numerous youths from a path of crime, the society must be made aware of its prejudices, the economic situation in African and Hispanic neighborhoods must improve, and the juvenile justice system must be reformed based on principles of restorative justice.
Beauchamp, Z. (2013). Study: throwing kids in jail makes crime worse, ruins lives. Web.
Labeling theory and symbolic interaction theory. (2016). Web.
Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R.A. (2012). Criminological theory. Context and consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Racial-ethnic fairness. (2016). Web.
Tutorial: Introduction to restorative justice. (2016). Web.