Today’s Youth: Race, Violence, Juvenile Justice, and Research

Handcuffs, Omagh. Google Images.

At a moment when the country is facing one of the most controversial cases of violence against young black men and women in recent history—Trayvon Martin and his death being the most heated topic among several recent violent killings, including that of Rekia Boyd and the  Tulsa shooting—scholars, social scientists, and the wider public find themselves grappling with complicated questions about the state of the criminal justice system and its relationship to youth delinquency, detention, violence, and justice.

The past two months have produced a slew of news reports, articles, Facebook statuses, tweets, and formal and informal conversations in which Trayvon Martin’s death has served as a symbol of outrage and vehemence concerning racism, racial profiling, and the criminal justice system. At this momentous juncture—a time when youth of color are repeatedly depicted on nightly crime reports as the perpetrators or victims of violence—I’m particularly interested in examining some of these issues with empirical research and hard data to expand the dialogue now engrossing many of us. In moments like this social scientists turn to sound empirical research to help frame the discussion, provide a more meaningful and nuanced understanding of the situation, ground arguments in substantiated claims, and take the opportunity to either mitigate or amplify this fervor—for justifiable reasons, of course.

My intent is not to inflame the current situation but to present some pertinent resources on the juvenile justice system, youth delinquency, and youth culture that the research community can view, analyze, interpret, and possibly launch their own studies in the wake of several national tragedies involving youth of color. Here you will find some interesting projects that empirically demonstrate the troubling relationship of today’s youth with the juvenile justice system; the political behavior and attitudes of youth; and a number of data sets that cover a wide range of topics related to youth health behavior, attitudes, delinquency, and institutionalization.

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population is under 17 years old. In many urban centers, nearly a third of this age group lives in poverty; in Chicago, that figure is roughly 35%, some 5% lower than in the 1990s. The juvenile and criminal justice systems are full of people from poor communities. The innumerable problems associated with low socioeconomic status are well documented. For young black teens aged 15 to 19, gun violence is the leading cause of death. Over the past few decades we have seen unarmed black youth and men and women of color shot by police officers who believed they had weapons. Rekia Boyd is a recent reminder of this too-frequent occurrence.

All of these are well-known facts to the public, yet a case like Trayvon Martin’s does not typify these “facts.” In other words: is such a case different from what we normally see and does it speak to larger issues within the world of violence, delinquency, and criminal justice? Are the claims made by proponents and opponents worth considering in the context of empirical research? How can research furnish a deeper analysis of such a case? What claims being made can be supported by empirical evidence? I believe these questions are answerable and reasonable to ask of social scientists.

Some researchers have already started projects that unravel the cultural, gendered, and racial components of youth violence, while others have empirically charted the workings of the juvenile justice system in today’s atmosphere of stop and frisk, control and punish. Victor Rios, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has done extensive ethnographic research on how black and Latino youth are criminalized and made to enact hyper-masculine behaviors through repeated contact with authorities and institutions, a process he terms the “youth control complex.” He is the author of the recent book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.

Cathy Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, is leading an ongoing study of youth called the Black Youth Project, a research endeavor whose data forms the basis of her latest book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. The Black Youth Project covers a wide range of issues relevant to youth of color, with survey questions related to gender roles and discrimination, racial attitudes, social issues affecting youth, politics, views on rap music and videos, health, sex, and other important topics. The data can be accessed with a requestSeveral articles have resulted from the data. One worth noting examines the impact of the criminal justice system on youth political efficacy—a study that is fresh and new among many others that look at the effects of the criminal justice system.

Project NIA, a Chicago-based organization with a transformative and restorative justice mission that focuses much of its attention on youth violence and crime, has conducted several studies on juvenile arrests in Chicago and has collected resources related to juvenile justice through an initiative called the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project. One particularly useful resource concerning Cook County arrest data is an infographic poster that depicts the historical trajectory of laws in Illinois on youth justice and other key data points since 2006. “Arresting Justice,” a report produced by Project NIA and the First Defense Legal Aid, provides a comprehensive view of juvenile arrests in Chicago during 2009 and 2010.

Amidst these ongoing projects and resources, current data sets can be used to analyze offending patterns of youth, residential placement of detained juveniles, and the high-risk behaviors that often accompany youth delinquency. The Compendium of National Juvenile Justice Data Sets houses 16 data sets covering a wide range of issues involving youth. Some of them are well-known and frequently used, such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the National Crime Victimization Survey. These data sets are also available through the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR).

Opportunities abound to dive into the current debate from an empirically grounded position or to conduct thought-provoking research that might expand the literature on juvenile justice and youth culture. In this milieu of youth violence and claims of injustice, the time seems particularly vital for social scientists to think critically about these issues and let the moment help guide their research interests and current projects.


Author: Julian Thompson

Julian Thompson is a research assistant at the Social Science Research Center at DePaul University. He is completing his MA in Sociology and is expecting to begin doctoral studies in the fall of 2012. Broadly speaking, his interests revolve around issues of identity, culture, power, legal practices and discourses, and inequality. His specific research domains are prisons, punishment, ex-offender reentry, street life, mental illness, and immigration detention and deportation. However, he is particularly interested in studying the racialized experiences of imprisonment and re-entry and the way these impact the racial understandings that offenders of color inculcate and use when making sense of their lives and criminal engagements.

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