Race, Class and Legal Risk in the United States: Youth of Color and Collud Ing Systems of Social Control

By Heitzeg, Nancy A. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Race, Class and Legal Risk in the United States: Youth of Color and Collud Ing Systems of Social Control


Heitzeg, Nancy A., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Race, Class and Legal Risk: An Overview

"All domination is, in the last instance, maintained through social control strategies"

(Bonilla-Silva 2001)

Youth of color, particularly African American, Latino/a, and American Indian, are particularly vulnerable segments of the U.S. population. They are over-represented, relative to their population size, in a wide array of troubling statistics--poverty, homelessness, unemployment, high school drop-out rates, mortality, single parent, grandparent or foster care households, teenage pregnancy rates, incidence of HIV/AIDS and other STDS, and likelihood of crime victimization. (DeNavas-Walt et. al., 2006; National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007; Orfield and Lee 2007; Shah 2007; RB 20007; CDC 2007; Devarics 2004))

A significant set of the risks these youth face are legal; youth of color are also over-represented at all phases of the juvenile justice system, and are increasingly put on a pathway seemed designed to insure perpetual legal control on into adulthood. Race, class, and gender disparities here are certainly not new; they are evidenced in the frequency of police contacts, arrest, adjudication, out-of-home placement, and reference to adult court. A substantial body of research has clearly documented the persistence of racialized patterns with regard to both juvenile justice and the adult criminal justice systems. (Walker, Spohn and DeLone 2007; Feld 2001, 2003, 2007; NAACP 2005)

What is relatively new, however, is the escalation of these disparities in light of the rise of the prison industrial complex and the so-called War on Drugs. This escalation is made possible by colluding systems of social control--the rise of the medical model of deviance which provides therapeutic alternatives for the middle and upper classes and the white; rampant media stereotyping and fear-mongering; shifts in educational practices that favor zero-tolerance policies and a correctional atmosphere that feeds the "school-to prison pipeline; and philosophical and legal changes in the juvenile justice system the maximize penalties, widen the net of control, and directly and indirectly facilitate entry into the adult criminal justice system.

Youth of Color and Legal Risk: Patterns and Correlates

"Oppression refers to systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in this sense is structural.. It names as Marilyn Frye puts it, "an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of an entire group or category of people.'"

(Young 1990)

Recent trends indicate that youth of color are at increasing risk for criminalization and incarceration. The over-representation is greatest for young black males, although it should be noted that Latinos, American Indians and females of color are also disproportionately represented in both statistical disadvantage and actual social control. Youth of color, especially African and Latino, are over- represented in a myriad of statistics involving the legal system. African American youth are at increasing risk of out-of-home placement due the incarceration of parents. While young black children are about 17 percent of the nation's youth, they now account for more than 50% of the children in foster care. This explosion in foster care has been fueled by the destabilization of families and the mass incarceration of Black men and women (Roberts 2004; Brewer 2007; Bernstein 2005).

Further, these youth are at risk for direct legal involvement themselves. Youth of color are over-represented in arrest statistics, especially for both violent and property Index crimes. Again, African Americans, while representing 17% of the youth population, account for 45% of all juvenile arrests (NAACP 2005). Youth of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, are more likely to have police contacts and police contacts which result in arrest, to be labeled as gang members and tracked via gang databases. …

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