Taking a Juvenile into Custody: Situational Factors That Influence Police Officers' Decisions

By Allen, Terrence T. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Taking a Juvenile into Custody: Situational Factors That Influence Police Officers' Decisions


Allen, Terrence T., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Situational factors that influence police officers decisions to take juveniles into custody were investigated. A cross-sectional self administered survey was conducted. Four-hundred and twenty-eight male and female police officers from six police districts in Cleveland Ohio completed and submitted a twenty-five item questionnaire. Using a logistic regression model the study identified: adolescents who disrespect police officers; adolescents who are out late at night; adolescent males; anyone looking suspicious; and the age of the police officer as the most significant predictors. This was an exploratory study that sought to investigate police/juvenile encounters from a street level situational perspective. The results provided a basis for continued research in this area of inquiry.

Key words: juvenile, custody, police officers, adolescent male

Introduction

Today, police officers hold a unique and powerful position in our criminal justice system. Unlike judges and prosecutors, they make decisions on the streets and out of the public spotlight. Consequently, they exercise a wide range of discretion and power over who will be subject to legal intervention and social control (Smith & Visher, 1981). Police officers patrol in urban communities that are inundated with high unemployment, disinvestments, and crumbling infrastructures. In these communities there are disproportionate rates of illiteracy and high levels of drug activity, both of which are symptoms of social forces that weaken social control. It is reasonable to expect such conditions to influence how police officers perceive and interpret the behavior and conduct of youth. Moreover, it is within these contexts that the stage is set for understanding factors that influence police officers' decisions about taking juveniles into custody. These contexts set the boundaries within which a number of factors can join together including the formation of specific situations in which police officers and youth interact, and the transactions that trigger the actual decision to take youth into custody. Because of the powerful implications of police discretion, the point of interest in this paper is those factors that influence police officers' decisions to take juveniles into custody. The aim of this paper is to identify situations and circumstances that may increase the probability that police officers will take juveniles into custody.

Related Literature

Very few researchers interested in the decision making process within the juvenile justice system have studied factors that influence police officers' decision to take juveniles into custody. Most researchers have focused on process decisions made after juveniles have been arrested and their primary interest has been on race effects at various decision points throughout the juvenile justice system (Wordes 1994; Wu, 1997; Wu & Fuentes, 1998). Morash's study (1984) is an exception. She found among other things that being male increases the chance of being taken into custody. Not since then has any research focused on factors that influence the decision to take juveniles into custody beyond the issue of race. Other scholars suggest that the demeanor of a suspect is the most influential determinant in shaping a police officer's decision to take a juvenile into custody (Ludman, 1996; Skolinick & Fyfe, 1993; Worden & Shepard, 1996). Klinger (1994) stands alone in his position that previous findings are of questionable validity because the research has conceived and measured demeanor improperly.

Only a few studies have focused specifically on police encounters with juveniles (Pope & Synder, 2003) which is not surprising because these encounters are rather difficult to measure. They tend to be nonviolent, low-profile events that take place spontaneously on the streets. The number of juveniles taken into custody for violent crimes in which police have little to no discretion declined by 41% between 1991 and 2000 (Synder, 2002).

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