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The juvenile justice system mirrors the adult system of criminal justice in that it has three basic components: police, courts, and corrections. More likely than not, whether or not a juvenile is processed into this system is dependent upon the outcome of an encounter with the police. It is accurate to say that the police serve as the ‘‘gatekeepers’’ to the juvenile justice system— they serve this function in the adult system as well. The police in turn begin the criminal justice process by making initial decisions about how to handle incidents involving juveniles. Indeed, the role of the police in juvenile justice is an important one.
Police officers have many contacts with juveniles that are for the most part unknown. For this reason, the cases that reach the juvenile courts are only a small fraction of the interactions that police have with juvenile suspects and offenders. In deciding how to handle incidents involving youth, the police have a wide range of responses available to them. This latitude is a necessary element to police work as patrol officers are presented with various and often complex situations (Whitaker). However, in light of this discretion, one should be concerned with how police make decisions involving juveniles as it is an important decision, one that may formally classify juveniles (correctly or incorrectly) as delinquents and introduce them to the juvenile justice system.
This research paper will focus on the police part of juvenile justice and will provide an overview of policing juveniles. It will briefly review the police role in juvenile justice from a historical perspective and it will review the organizational structures existing in policing today to handle juveniles as well as the legal rights of juveniles who are accused of some wrongdoing. This research paper will then review what we know about police-juvenile interactions, including a discussion of how police dispose of their encounters with youth, and what factors shape their decisionmaking. Finally, ideas for future research on policing juveniles are discussed.
Historical Overview and Organizational Structure
The focus and purpose of ‘‘juvenile justice’’ has undergone considerable change in the past century. Juvenile justice systems were originally formed to protect youth from the adult systems of justice and to allow discretion in decisionmaking involving youth so that juvenile justice actors could make decisions that were in the best interest of the child. The ideals behind the formation of the juvenile court, for example, revolved around rehabilitation and helping juveniles who might have problematic home lives or who were psychologically immature or troubled (Scott and Grisso). Troubled and delinquent youth were not thought to be fully capable of guilty intentions, rather they were thought to be in need of help and guidance. However, the idea that juveniles should be handled with ‘‘kid gloves’’ and that they should be protected from the adult system of justice has changed— particularly since the mid-1970s. These changes have not, however, had many direct implications for police handling of juveniles; they more often have altered the context of the juvenile courts.
Remarkably, the police role in juvenile justice has remained much the same. One of the central reasons for this has to do with the occupation of policing. Police officers work alone, without direct supervision, and they bear the burden of much discretion. It is difficult to know what officers do during their shifts and many of their contacts with youth (and adults) go without documentation in official records. When the creation of juvenile justice systems occurred (and this happened sporadically throughout the states), police handling of juveniles was not of much concern.
Prior to the early twentieth century, police had the authority to arrest juveniles (possibly more authority than with adults because juveniles had no procedural protections) but juveniles were usually dealt with informally. That is to say, police officers would warn kids, bring them home to their parents or guardians, or maybe relinquish them to a community agency (i.e., a local church or school) (Bartollas and Miller). It is important to put this within the context of policing during this period. Policing in America prior to the 1920s and 1930s was very political. Patrol officers campaigned for local politicians and as a reward were allowed to keep their jobs or to begin a job as a patrol officer. Patrol officers were politically recruited from the neighborhoods in which they lived, and as a result they knew many of the juveniles living in their assigned areas. Kelling notes that many cases of youth crime and disorder were settled with the end of a nightstick. The youths’ families and their political connections would more than likely influence the outcome of a police-juvenile interaction. These police practices with juveniles (and adults) came under scrutiny during the Progressive era, which marked a period of professionalization for police.
The professionalization movement in policing occurred in response to a movement to establish professional standards in policing and it occurred as the result of increased technology in America (see Walker, 1992). The professionalization movement sought, among other things, to eliminate political control of the police, raise personnel standards, appoint qualified chiefs to lead police departments, refocus the police toward fighting crime, and create specialized units to handle special problems. When policing underwent this reform in the early twentieth century, some of the changes were targeted at policing juveniles. Police departments began acknowledging the problem of juvenile crime and began to address this issue as part of an overall policing strategy (Miller). Moreover, reforms targeted at policing juveniles called on police to prevent juvenile delinquency—rather than merely attempting to make arrests. Police attention to juvenile crime before the mid-twentieth century was focused on crime prevention rather than on apprehension, deterrence, and punishment.
With this new attention to juvenile crime came the hiring of female officers. Female police officers were introduced to the policing occupation during the early twentieth century and they were initially hired to work with juvenile delinquents and runaways. They were labeled juvenile ‘‘specialists’’ because it was thought that women had a ‘‘special capacity for child care’’ and that handling juveniles was in fact women’s work (see Walker, 1977, pp. 84–85).
During the early 1900s larger police agencies began instituting some organizational structure to handle juveniles. In the 1920s August Vollmer, the father of police professionalism, who was at the time chief of police in Berkley, California, formed one of the first juvenile bureaus (Walker; Bartollas and Miller). Vollmer advocated for increased training and specialized training for juvenile officers. He wanted juvenile officers to be educated on the causes of juvenile delinquency and to develop programs that would help keep juveniles out of trouble. Specialized juvenile units and bureaus would be found in most metropolitan agencies by the mid-1900s, their primary focus on crime prevention. Police agencies that did not have the manpower (or need) for an entire juvenile unit or bureau would often have at least one ‘‘juvenile specialist’’ who focused his or her efforts on keeping kids out of trouble and preventing juvenile crime. The establishment of these organized juvenile units and bureaus spawned the development of police athletic leagues and youth diversion programs— some of which still exist today. Police athletic leagues were created to help foster a relationship between police and kids. Diversion programs divert youth from the criminal justice system by using counseling and other tactics to teach kids about accountability and the consequences of delinquency. In the 1960s these were formal programs designed to avoid labeling youth as criminals and to lighten the load of the criminal justice system.
Today most police agencies have juvenile units or juvenile specialists, but the focus of the juvenile officer in metropolitan agencies has evolved over time. Juvenile specialists now operate as detectives, and are called juvenile unit detectives, juvenile specialists, and so on. They are embraced as an essential part of police departments and are no longer viewed as the add-on that they once were. Juvenile officers spend much of their day doing investigative work, following up on juvenile crimes and on juvenile victimization. This is not to say that juvenile officers never spend time involved in crime prevention, that crime prevention can no longer be their sole focus. In terms of prevention, juvenile officers still spend some time forming police athletic leagues and youth diversion programs that began in the middle of the twentieth century. It is also common for juvenile detectives to make appearances at elementary, middle, and high schools to deter juvenile crime and to speak out against drug use and gang formation. In fact, many metropolitan departments train one or more officers to work directly with schoolchildren of all ages, educating students on the consequences of delinquency and drug use. One particular prevention program, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), became very popular nationwide during the 1990s.
During the 1990s many police departments hired officers to work specifically on the DARE project. DARE, which was developed in the Los Angeles, California, police department as a drug prevention program for school children, uses uniformed patrol officers to educate school children on the dangers of drug use. DARE officers often had offices within public schools, where kids could easily access information or ask questions. Early evaluations suggested that DARE worked and as a result many departments in the 1990s assigned uniformed officers to the DARE project. Unfortunately, extended evaluations of this program now suggests that the long-term effects of project DARE are not as beneficial as once thought; in fact they may be nonexistent (see, for example, Rosenbaum et al.; Rosenbaum and Hanson). For this reason, many departments are phasing out DARE as a preventive measure or are at least restructuring the program. The role of the juvenile officer or detective continues to evolve, and with time involvement in investigation has taken precedence over prevention, although this may change with new reforms in policing. Under the umbrella of community and problem-oriented policing, police departments nationwide are beginning to form partnerships with communities so that they can be more efficient at preventing crime. This new approach to policing will surely influence how police address issues of juvenile crime. In 1998 and 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded millions of dollars in School-Based Partnership grants, which funded partnerships between the police, schoolchildren, and the community. The goal of these partnerships was to target specific problems of school crime and violence and to develop a link between kids and cops. Evaluations of these projects are ongoing.
Is Juvenile Crime on The Rise?
There has been an increased concern about the incidence and seriousness of juvenile offending over the past few decades. Local and national media regularly alert American families to instances of juvenile crime. This growing awareness and concern has prompted renewed attention to the juvenile justice system, with particular concern over how juveniles are processed in to and out of the system. Whether or not this growing concern is warranted is debatable. While policy makers and public opinion call for ‘‘get tough’’ approaches with juveniles, some argue that there are no justifications for such an approach (see Bernard, for an example). In 1996, juvenile arrests accounted for almost 20 percent of the arrests tabulated for the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Reports. The number of juvenile arrests in 1996 represented a 35 percent increase over the preceding ten years, while arrests overall during that period increased only 13 percent. Further, the number of juvenile arrests for violent personal offenses represented a 60 percent increase (see Worden and Myers). Statistics of this kind along with well-publicized incidents of youth violence over the past decade have prompted policy makers to call for measures that would make the juvenile justice system more punitive. Bernard argues that the statistics do not justify such an approach. A deeper analysis reveals that the number of juvenile arrests (with the exception of homicide arrests) has basically paralleled the rise and fall in the number of juveniles of crime-prone age (p. 342). In fact, juvenile crime has been on a decline, down by one-third since 1975 (Bernard). One might logically infer or hypothesize that the increase in the number of police arrests of juveniles could reflect police adoption of the ‘‘get tough’’ movement.
Legal Rights of Juveniles
The creation of juvenile justice systems was based on conceptions of rehabilitation and treatment, not on punishment. For this reason, up until the 1960s persons working in the juvenile justice system and those working in criminal justice generally were allowed an enormous amount of discretion when making decisions about youth. Discretion exists when a person of authority can choose several types of formal and informal actions, or inaction. With increased discretion and no formal procedures to handle juveniles, criminal justice agents could then act in the best interest of the child. For this reason, punishment policies and procedural safeguards that existed in the adult criminal justice system were not regularly required or operating in juvenile justice systems (Feld). The idea was that juvenile justice would be individualized for each youth and it would be based on a rehabilitative and treatment philosophy. Police were to formally process youth into the system only if it appeared necessary to curb future misconduct or if it were necessary given the seriousness of the suspected offense.
In a landmark case, In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court sparked the beginning of a juvenile justice reform that remains ongoing. The legal response to juvenile delinquency has changed dramatically since the Gault decision. In Gault, the Court began, unintentionally, the process of criminalizing the juvenile justice system and transforming it into what many regard as a near mirror image of the adult criminal justice system (see Feld; Bartollas and Miller). The decision in Gault required states to give juveniles many procedural safeguards that were previously only required for adult suspects. Before this time, juveniles had no regulated rights from state to state (Scott and Grisso), though some states did allocate rights to juveniles before Gault, even though they were not required to do so by Supreme Court standards. Two Supreme Court rulings directly affected police handling of juveniles. In Gault, the Supreme Court clarified that juveniles were protected from self-incrimination and that they had a right to counsel (though it is not clear if juveniles, like adults, can waive these rights). In State v. Lowery, 230 A.2d 907 (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles were also protected from unlawful searches and seizures (Bartollas and Miller). The assignment of these and other legal rights to juveniles, many of which pertain to procedural issues in the juvenile court, was supposed to protect juveniles from procedural injustice within the system. One unintended result was that the assignment of procedural protections became the impetus for changing the juvenile justice system into what we see today—a system that closely resembles the adult criminal justice system. The assignment of rights to juveniles varies from state to state, with some states providing more than others, as the Supreme Court only establishes the minimum protections required.
To confuse matters, the age at which one is legally considered an adult also varies from state to state. Most states consider a person to be an adult at the eighteenth birthday, ten states use the age of seventeen, and three states determine adulthood at sixteen. However, this is not the end of the ‘‘legal age’’ issue. As a result of the public’s concern over juvenile crime in the late 1990s, many legislative reforms within states targeted the juvenile justice system. Many states have passed offense-specific legislation that allows police and prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults if the offense is serious. While this legislation does not effect policing day to day, it does speak to the current trend of juvenile justice and the desire to get tough on America’s youth. These types of legislation are emerging sporadically throughout the states and they are in direct conflict with the initial goals and purpose of juvenile justice. Social science research suggests that youth are not cognitively, socially, or psychologically mature—and are thus unable to process decisions in a mature, adult manner (Scott and Grisso). This ‘‘get tough’’ on kids approach allows the seriousness of the offense to determine a child’s maturity—as if the seriousness of the act itself implies adulthood. It is unclear whether this movement to get tough on juveniles has affected police handling of juveniles, or if it will in the future. Research on the connection between ‘‘get tough’’ policy and police behavior needs to accumulate, but one might hypothesize that police might be more lenient with juveniles because they realize that any formal action on their part might have serious consequences for youth.
As Walker (1992) notes, juveniles represent a special set of problems for the police. First, police have more contact with juveniles, who are hanging out on the streets, and this might cause some anxiety for other citizens in the area. Second, juveniles have more negative attitudes toward the police, possibly because of their increased contacts with police (Walker, 1992).
Police interact with juveniles in many ways. Street level patrol officers interact with many youth who are suspects and victims, only a fraction of whom are formally processed into the juvenile justice system. These interactions occur either as police respond to dispatched calls for police service or as police initiate encounters with youth, who may or may not be involved in mischief, during the work day. Although many police departments have specialized juvenile units or bureaus to handle juveniles, these officers usually do not play a role in juvenile justice until a patrol officer decides to formally process a youth (this only occurs approximately 15% of the time) or refers an incident report involving a youth to the juvenile unit. Juvenile specialists usually do not respond to calls for police service that involve juveniles and they are not involved in most police-juvenile interactions.
Research on police-juvenile interactions conducted in the 1960s and 1970s reported that twothirds to three-quarters of the encounters were more likely than not the result of a complainant’s request for police assistance and that police initiated only a small fraction of their encounters with youth (see Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.). Research undertaken in the late 1990s suggests that police were initiating about half of their encounters with juveniles (Worden and Myers). This is in line with what we might expect from contemporary police officers working in the community policing era, where they are expected to pay greater attention to the less serious quality-of-life offenses, in which juveniles are likely to be involved. Other police interactions with juveniles are the result of a citizen’s request—either by calling the department and requesting service or by flagging down an officer who happens to be in the neighborhood.
These interactions tend to be of a minor legal nature (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Worden and Myers). They rarely involve serious, personal offenses and more likely the encounters involve public disorder offenses, nonviolent offenses, or suspicious circumstances that do not require any formal action be taken by the police. Evidence from the 1990s reveals that police encounters with youth typically involve only one juvenile and usually there is not a victim or complainant present during the encounter. When a victim is present, they rarely request that the police arrest the juvenile—they are more likely to request other police actions (not to arrest, to warn, and the like). Further, police generally do not have any prior knowledge of the youth with whom they interact, and as a result they must make decisions with the limited information available (see Worden and Myers).
Police Handling of Juveniles: Outcomes
Extant research on police patrol officers repeatedly suggests that officers utilize a variety of actions to handle the citizens and situations with which they are presented (Black, 1980; McIver and Parks; Bayley; Worden; Klinger). An inquiry into police actions with juveniles reveals the same variation; juvenile arrest rates appear to be similar to adult arrest rates, around 15 percent (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Black, 1980; Smith and Visher; Bayley; Worden; Klinger). This leaves, on average, an estimated 85 percent of encounters where no arrest occurs, but in which police utilize their authority in other ways to curb the future misconduct of juveniles.
If police practices with juveniles are at all similar to practices with adults, most policejuvenile interactions are handled informally (Wordes and Bynum). That is not to say, however, that formal courses of action are never taken. Formal police actions might include taking a juvenile into custody, taking a report, referring to a social service agency or juvenile court, giving a citation, or making an arrest (Walker). Previous research indicates that informal courses of action are more common (Piliavin and Briar; Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.). However, this does not mean that the police do nothing with the majority of juvenile suspects they encounter; this would imply that informal actions taken by the police are insignificant. Rather, the police utilize their authority in other ways: by questioning a juvenile about a particular offense; conducting searches for evidence; negotiating for a particular outcome; asking for information; requesting that a juvenile leave the area or cease disorderly/ illegal behavior; or threatening to charge or make an arrest if the problem persists. While these courses of action might be considered informal in nature, as there may be no written record of the chosen outcome, they still represent officers’ ‘‘use of authority’’ and they should be considered in discussions of police outcomes in juvenile cases. These actions represent officers’ attempts to handle the problem.
Research conducted in 1996 and 1997 through systematic social observation of police officers in the field captured information on police contacts with 604 juvenile suspects (see Worden and Myers). This research reveals that police are much more likely to dispose of their encounters with youth informally. Only 13 percent of juvenile suspects were arrested and 3.6 percent received a formal citation. However, juveniles were likely to be subjected to other forms of police authority. Police investigated juvenile suspects by interrogating or questioning almost half, and searching either the juvenile or the area around the juvenile over a quarter of the time. A small fraction of the juveniles (one tenth) were commanded by police to cease disorderly or illegal behavior, to leave the premises, or to provide information related to some criminal offense. One quarter of the juvenile suspects were threatened to be charged or cited for their wrongdoing. Only 14 percent of these juveniles were outright released without receiving formal or informal sanctions. Most juveniles who encounter the police are not arrested or cited (and are thus not processed into the juvenile justice system), but they are subject to police authority in some other form.
Explaining Police Decision-Making (Outcomes) with Juveniles
A large volume of research has accumulated on police decision-making with suspects generally, with particular attention to how the arrest decision is shaped by the characteristics of the situation. Some of this research has addressed the effect of suspect age (i.e., are juveniles more likely to be arrested than adults?) (see, for example, Mastrofski, Worden, and Snipes; Smith and Visher). One might suppose that police decisionmaking with juvenile suspects turns on different factors than decisions regarding adults. Police might feel they have even more latitude with juveniles and they may, for example, rely less on situational factors of a legal nature to inform their decisions. Further, inasmuch as police make decisions based on their own sense of what ought to be done, they may be even more inclined to do so when the citizen with whom they interact is a juvenile.
Other research has looked strictly at policejuvenile interactions. There is currently a paucity of research on how the police behave and the choices they make while interacting with juveniles. Some research has examined specialized juvenile officers, either as they patrolled streets or as they made decisions after a juvenile had been referred to their unit (Piliavin and Briar; Hohenstein; McEachern and Bauzer; Terry; Wordes, Bynum, and Corley). These examinations mostly looked at officers’ use of authority as police made decisions about arrest, detention, and referrals to other social service and social control agencies.
One might expect that the decision-making patterns of juvenile specialists might vary from those of patrol officers inasmuch as juvenile specialists make decisions in a situational context that differs from that of patrol officers. While patrol officers make decisions on the street with little information available and with added pressure to make a quick judgment, juvenile officers make their decisions after a case has been referred to them with possibly more information and more time available for assessment. For example, the juvenile specialist might be more able to obtain information on juveniles’ family lives, the amount of parental supervision they receive, and their previous infractions of the law. Finally, juvenile specialists presumably have more training on handling juveniles, particularly on making decisions that are in the best interest of the youth.
Some research has examined patrol officers’ encounters with juvenile suspects, employing a method of systematic social observation. Research on police that employs a method of systematic social observation reveals the variety of actions officers take, including but not limited to arrest, in their attempts to resolve problems with juveniles. It also reveals a clearer picture of the types of offenses and problems in which juveniles are involved and under what circumstances a juvenile enters the juvenile justice system. This method enables researchers to examine dispositions that police do not systematically record and that would not normally be accounted for in official police records (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Worden and Myers). Research by Black and Reiss (1970) and Lundman and colleagues focuses on the arrest decision in policejuvenile encounters; the study by Worden and Myers examines police arrest practices with juveniles as well as officers’ use of other forms of authority (commands, threats, investigative tactics, and advising). One other study utilizes policejuvenile contact records from 1968 to 1975 to analyze police arrest practices with juveniles (Sealock and Simpson). All of the above studies typically took a situational approach to explaining police decision-making with juveniles in that they looked to factors available in the officers’ immediate situation to see if they had a bearing on police outcomes. More specifically, the focus was on the influence of both legal and extralegal factors.
It is widely known and accepted that police officers have high degrees of discretion and autonomy from supervisory and organizational authority (Lipsky; Brown). Patrol officers tend to work in isolation, not necessarily by choice but by the nature of the work itself, where there is no immediate supervision. While police agencies provide a demanding set of rules and guidelines to follow, it is the officer who must make on-thespot decisions to resolve situations. Laws, statutes, and ordinances are often vague or inapplicable and, subsequently, do not provide much guidance for decision-making on the street. In addition, the handling of juvenile problems adds more uncertainty to police work. Police have to manage the application of laws specific to juveniles where juveniles are at times treated as adults and other times not (McNamara). This might even be cause at times for police to shy away from handling juvenile problems.
In turn, individual officers decide who will and will not be arrested, who will receive a citation, and who will and will not be informed about another agency that may offer assistance with a particular problem. How do officers make these decisions? On what do they base their decisions?
We know that police behavior varies. We know, for example, that all officers would not utilize the same level of authority in a given situation. Theorizing about what affects police behavior has generally taken three approaches, either independently or in combination: psychological; sociological; and organizational. Psychological theories of police behavior rest on the proposition that officers’ actions are influenced by their own outlooks and background characteristics (e.g., education level achieved, training, length of service, attitudes about policing and about the people they serve, and so on) (Worden). Sociological theories rest on the proposition that officer behavior is influenced, at least in part, by the situation they confront and the distribution of different aspects of social life (e.g., the race and socioeconomic status of the suspect and complainant, demeanor of the suspect or complainant, how many other officers are present, and so on) (Black, 1976; Black and Reiss, 1967, 1970). Proponents of organizational theories believe that the police organization (the chief, supervisors, organizational rules and procedures, etc.) influences officer behavior.
These theoretical orientations have been used in the past to explain choices that police officers make while handling problems with suspects. To date there has been little research examining police decision-making with juveniles. Extant research in this area utilizes a sociological approach and examines the influence of situational factors on police discretion—that is, the extent to which police behavior is patterned, for example, by victim preferences, seriousness of the offense, evidentiary strength, and juvenile demeanor.
Sociological or situational theories of police behavior turn to factors in the officers’ immediate situation to explain their behavior. The underlying assumption is that people respond to the social structure of the situation. There are an infinite number of possibly influential factors in one’s environment. A large body of research has accumulated on this subject and this research supports the hypothesis that police respond to the situation with which they are presented (see Smith and Visher for an example).
In police-citizen encounters, there are some situational cues that we expect officers to be attuned to when making decisions, for example, offense seriousness and the amount of evidence; this grouping of factors has been labeled legal factors. Other factors that might reflect a suspect’s social status or what police might perceive as their ‘‘subversive capability,’’ and for which effects on police decision-making are undesirable, are extralegal factors (Black and Reiss, 1967). A person’s social status includes those characteristics that ‘‘one carries with them from situation to situation, such as their sex, age, race, demeanor, ethnic, or social class status’’ (Black and Reiss, 1967, p. 9).
A significant amount of research has focused on the influence of legal factors on police behavior with juveniles. Legal factors might include the seriousness of the offense, the amount of evidence available to the officer, whether or not the juvenile appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and whether or not the victim requests that the police take, or not take, some kind of action. Research testing hypotheses on the influence of these factors confirm that they do have a significant impact on police decision-making.
The influence of the seriousness of the offense and the amount of evidence available to the officer is well documented in extant research. Research on police-juvenile interactions suggest that these events are more likely than not of a minor legal nature and that when the offense is a serious one (e.g., a felony) and the evidence is strong, police are more likely to make an arrest (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Sealock and Simpson; Worden and Myers). Likewise, when juvenile specialists make decisions other than arrest (detention decisions, referral decisions, and so on) and when patrol officers make decisions (for example, detention decisions) regarding juveniles that occur later in the process than the decision to arrest, they too tend to be influenced by offense seriousness (Hohenstein; Piliavin and Briar; Terry; Wordes et al.).
Police also tend to consider and respond to complainants’ preferences when making decisions—in fact, one study finds that when police initiate an encounter with a juvenile they are significantly less likely to arrest than when they are responding to a complainant’s request for police assistance (see Worden and Myers). As one might expect, when complainants request that a juvenile be arrested, the police are more likely to make an arrest (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.). One interesting finding is that there is strong evidence that when the complainant is a minority the police utilize more authority not only in the form of arrest but also in investigation (searches, questioning) and commands or threats (see Worden and Myers). Also, when complainants request that the police do not make an arrest, police are less likely to take this action. This might be partly explained by the fact that when an offense is of a minor legal nature, the police may need complainants to sign a formal complaint in order to make an arrest. Police do not always make an arrest, even if the offense is a serious one; the decision might still be left to the complainant—or at least open to input from the complainant.
Especially in cases involving juveniles, officers might be expected to consider whether or not a suspect appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While possession of drugs is an offense for both younger and older persons, possession of alcohol is an offense only for persons under the age of twenty-one. There has been little research on this matter. Worden and Myers report that when the suspects are juveniles under the age of eighteen, and when they appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the police are not more likely to make an arrest than they are to simply release the juveniles. Further, police are not any more likely to employ investigative tactics or use commands and threats under these circumstances; this too is unexpected. It could be that police officers are more likely to offer assistance and comfort in these situations, or at least when a juvenile is in need of assistance. Or maybe police officers do not view underage drinking as a serious offense, as they are aware that the majority of teens experiment with drinking and it is usually unrelated to more serious criminal acts.
Research on the role that legal factors play in police decision-making confirms that in cases involving adults and juveniles alike, police are influenced by these factors. Police are more likely to use authority and make an arrest when the offense is a serious one, when the evidence is strong, and when the victim prefers that an arrest be made. However, these legal factors do not determine police decisions. While they may play a substantial role, it is sometimes the case that when the offense is serious and the evidence strong, the police do not arrest. Likewise, at times, when the offense is of a less serious nature and the evidence is weak, the police use their discretion and make an arrest. Researchers look to extralegal factors to help further explain police decision-making.
The absence of concrete decision-making rules and guidelines to structure officer behavior, along with the observation that legal factors do not determine the use of police discretion, has focused social scientists on the role that extralegal factors play in decisionmaking. Attention to this issue has come about due to the realization that police officers bear the burden of an enormous amount of discretion and that they make decisions in a context with few informational cues available. It is in this light that one might expect situational characteristics that are readily observable to the officer—such as the suspect’s demeanor, race, sex, and level of wealth—to play a role in decision-making.
As patrol officers exercise their authority and handle situations ‘‘they are in an important sense dependent for cooperation upon those whom they have control’’ (Black and Reiss, 1967 p. 11). Research examining the influence of suspect demeanor, a reflection of cooperation, has produced consistent evidence that it has a substantial influence on police behavior. Police researchers have consistently found support for the expectation that citizens who are disrespectful toward the police are more likely to be arrested and more likely to have force used against them than those who are respectful or simply deferential. This finding is uniform across studies of police-juvenile encounters as well as police encounters with adults (Black and Reiss, 1967; Black and Reiss, 1970).
While one’s demeanor is termed an extralegal factor, one should, from an officer’s perspective, give some consideration to what it really means to be disrespectful toward the police. We know that police use their arrest powers infrequently and that they do not arrest everyone that they legally could. If an officer is trying to decide which action is going to prevent a reoccurrence of a problem he may very well decide that the disrespectful person should be arrested more often than the respectful person under the same (or even more serious) circumstances. If someone is not deferring to police authority while the police are in their presence, why would the police believe that the person would defer when they leave—or that anything other than arrest will end the problem? In such a case, arrest may be used as a tactic to handle the situation because the police feel that any other outcome may not end the problem.
Observational studies done by Black and Reiss and Lundman and others in the 1960s and 1970s suggest that police arrest minority juveniles at a higher rate than white juveniles. And more recent research that analyzes official records paints a similar picture, suggesting that minorities are more likely to be arrested as well as detained and referred to other agencies (Wordes and Bynum; Wordes et al.; Sealock and Simpson). At least one study’s findings suggest that juveniles of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be arrested (Sealock and Simpson). However, each of these findings were born out of analyses where complainant preference and suspect demeanor could not be accounted for—two factors that have proven to be important predictors in other studies. More recent observational research, which controls for demeanor and victim preference, as well as other legal factors like offense seriousness and evidence strength, suggests that race does not play a role in determining arrest, or other authoritative actions by the police (Worden and Myers). It also suggests that police are not more likely to arrest juveniles who appear to be of lower socioeconomic status than those from the middle class. It does, however, provide evidence of a different police bias—a gender bias. Females are significantly less likely to be arrested by police than their male counterparts—even when controlling for offense seriousness, evidence strength, and victim preference.
Future of Policing Juveniles
In light of the enormous amount of discretion that police have with juveniles, one should be concerned with how these decisions are made as they are important decisions, which may formally classify juveniles (correctly or incorrectly) as delinquents and introduce them to the juvenile justice system. The sociological approach to understanding the use of police discretion with juveniles only explains so much. Researchers must look to other factors and take different approaches to explaining behavior with juveniles (as they have with adults, that is, psychological and organizational approaches). Future research on policing juveniles should try and increase our knowledge of the kinds of troubles in which juveniles are involved. Further, research should be directed at examining the effect of police outcomes on future juvenile delinquency. Do formal actions by the police have positive or negative effects on future misconduct? Little is still known about police juvenile interactions, and less is known about what effect police decisions have on future delinquency. Further research in these areas might improve the fairness and the effectiveness of the police role in juvenile justice.
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