The Effects of Race, Culture, and Special Education on Minority
Disproportionality in the Juvenile Justice System
By: Lisa Wiggin
The juvenile justice system is inequitably composed. African American youth comprise a
larger percentage of the juvenile justice system population than they do of the general population.
Unfortunately, they are not the only group to be overrepresented. Youth receiving special
education services also make up a greater percentage of the juvenile justice system than they do of
the general population. Intensifying concerns about these two inequities is the fact that African
American youth also make up a disproportionate percentage of students placed in special
education. This article briefly examines the relationship of race, culture, socio-economic status,
and disability on minority disproportionalities in the juvenile justice system and special education.
According to The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s analysis of data from the Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, African American youth aged 10 to 17 years
comprise 31 percent of all juvenile arrests, 40 percent of detentions, 34 percent of adjudications,
and 45 percent of cases transferred to adult criminal court. Despite these significant percentages,
African American youth make up only 17 percent of all children in this age group. Such
disproportionate representation occurs in nearly every state in the nation.
One possible reason for the disparate rates, especially for curfew violations and drug
arrests, is geography. The Sentencing Project found that in 2011, African American youth were
269 percent more likely than white youth to be arrested for violating curfew laws. Curfew laws
are more common in urban areas than suburbs, and minority populations are often concentrated in
urban areas. Thus, African American youth live in the places where curfew arrests are more likely
to occur, leading to disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice system.
Drug arrests, according to Human Rights Watch, are also more likely to occur in urban
areas. One reason is that drug law enforcement tends to be concentrated in large urban areas. The
other is that drug activity in low-income urban areas is more visible to police. Human Rights Watch
states that, “In poor black neighborhoods, drug transactions are more likely to be conducted on the
streets, in public, and between strangers, whereas in white neighborhoods – working class through
upper class – drugs are more likely to be sold indoors, in bars, clubs, and private homes.” Such
differences in police involvement due to geography could explain why African American youth
are arrested at far greater rates than white youth, despite similar rates of drug use. The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that black and white
students had been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property at nearly identical rates
of 22.8% and 22.7%, respectively. Yet, data compiled by The Sentencing Project shows that
African American youth are arrested for drug crimes at almost twice the rate of white youth.
Although geography may offer insights into the reasons for racial disproportionality in the
juvenile justice system, it does little to explain the overrepresentation of youth with special
educational needs. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (“OJJDP”) cites
“specific learning disability” and “emotional disturbance” as the two most common forms of
disabilities found in the juvenile justice system. Specific learning disability is defined as difficulty