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Racial and Ethnic Disparities (R.E.D)

Achieving racial and ethnic equity and inclusion requires the specific intention to address problems which have historically led to disparity, unequal treatment and unequal outcomes.
  • Racial and ethnic disparity refers to unequal treatment of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. RED results in disparate outcomes for similarly situated youth.
  • Disparate treatment can happen at all stages of the juvenile justice system, from arrest, summons, processing, arraignment, detention and commitment.
  • Reducing racial and ethnic disparity is one of the JDAI Core Strategies.  However, beyond seeking to reduce disparity, the universal goal is to create a system where every stakeholder values equity for all children.

The Basics: Understanding Disparity

What is race?  What is ethnicity? 

These terms are often poorly understood or misused by well-intentioned people.  Below is the guidance provided by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:  

“Race and ethnicity are terms often used together (e.g., racial and ethnic disparities). Race tends to be associated with biology, whereas ethnicity is associated with culture. OJJDP requires that states participating in the federal Formula Grant Program report racial and ethnic juvenile justice data using the following categories: White (Non-Hispanic), Black or African American (Non-Hispanic), Hispanic or Latino, Asian (Non-Hispanic), Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (Non-Hispanic), American Indian and Alaska Native (Non-Hispanic), and Other/Mixed.

OJJDP defines minority as youth who are American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, or Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander . Other commonly used terms are non-white and youth of color.

Discrimination denotes between-group differences in outcomes based on the consideration of extralegal or illegitimate factors. In other words, the terms discrimination and bias are used when the racial disparities appear to be caused by some intent on the part of the decision-maker (e.g., those who may be “racist” or who favor one racial or ethnic group over another), or when a system’s design puts minority youth at a disadvantage. Both individual and system bias can be intentional but are often unintentional or implicit.”

Taken from OJJDP, Disproportional Minority Contact Literature Review, (internal citation omitted). View the OJJDP’s full report and descriptions 

Distinctions – What it’s Not 

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines the distinctions and interplay between stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination in the follow way:

  • stereotype is an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a person or group — a generalization that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation. Stereotypes are based on images in mass media, or reputations passed on by parents, peers and other members of society. Stereotypes can be positive or negative.
  • prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment or attitude about a group or its individual members. A prejudice can be positive, but in our usage refers to a negative attitude.
  • Prejudices are often accompanied by ignorance, fear or hatred. Prejudices are formed by a complex psychological process that begins with attachment to a close circle of acquaintances or an "in-group" such as a family. Prejudice is often aimed at "out-groups."
  • Discrimination is behavior that treats people unequally because of their group memberships. Discriminatory behavior, ranging from slights to hate crimes, often begins with negative stereotypes and prejudices.

Read more about how to undo bias.

Reducing racial and Ethnic Disparities

Reducing racial disparities requires specific strategies aimed at eliminating bias and ensuring a level playing field for youth of color. This is one of the Eight Core Strategies for JDAI in Massachusetts.  Racial/ethnic disparities are the most stubborn aspect of detention reform. Real, lasting change in this arena requires committed leadership, on-going policy analysis and targeted policies and programming.

In Massachusetts today, black youth are three times more likely to be arrested then white youth and they are six times more likely to be detained then a white youth in our community.  Promoting equitable treatment and outcomes for all youth in our system is the goal of Massachusetts JDAI.

For more on local strategic efforts needed to truly reduce disparity see the W. Hayward Burns Institute publication titled The Keeper and the Kept from 2009 

Need for Quality Data

In order to address Racial and Ethnic Disparity system stakeholders must responsibly collect data, use standardized tools to guide their decision-making and regularly analyze the data they collect to assess the performance of their efforts.  System stakeholders at all levels must be accountable to that data.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and many non-profits promoting equity in our system, suggest that the best way to analyze the data about disparity is to capture numerous decision points in the juvenile justice system and compare the data at each point. Important decision-points in which data should be collected to be analyzed for disparity include arrest, court referral, diversion, arraignment, probation, detention and commitment. Unfortunately data is not currently available at all of those decision-points in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system by race and ethnicity.

What is a Relative Rate Index (RRI)?

The Relative Rate Index (RRI) relates each racial/ethnic group’s rate of contact with the juvenile justice system to that of the white youth group. The Relative Rate Index is a means of comparing the rates of juvenile justice contact. Each relative rate is dependent on the decision point that comes directly before what is being measured. The RRI provides a single index number that indicates whether there is disparity.

How to Calculate the RRI?

The Relative Rate Index (RRI) relates each racial/ethnic group’s rate of contact with the juvenile justice system to that of the white group.

For the first decision point — arrest — contact rates are calculated using each racial/ethnic group’s number of arrests as numerator and a measure of the group’s population as denominator.

Then, the contact rates are related to each other: the arrest rate for the racial/ethnic group becomes the numerator, the white group’s arrest rate the denominator, and the result of the division is the RRI.

The Decision-Specific RRI (as opposed to the Cumulative Effect RRI) reveals the amount of disparity introduced at each decision point by basing each rate calculation on the head count at the previous decision point. For example, the RRI for the second decision point — arraignment — uses number of youth arraigned as the numerator and number arrested as the denominator. Probation Rate, Detention Rate, and Commitment Rate all use number of youth arraigned as denominator.

More information on how to calculate an RRI can be found on the OJJDP website.  Many tools, training and practice guides can also be found on the National JDAI website supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Click here for the Interactive Data Dashboard Massachusetts JDAI Decision-Specific Relative Rate Index (RRI) Dashboard

Implicit Bias and Decision-Making

The Neuroscience of Decision-Making and Implicit Bias was the focus of the 2014 JDAI 7th Annual Conference Featured Keynote Speaker, Kimberly Papillon, Esq, walked the audience through the brain science involved in human decision making. She also provided tools to reduce bias. Read the recent article by Attorney Papillon.

Mervan Osborne, from the Beacon Academy and Cambridge School Committee, reflected on the impact of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in a personal and impactful closing to the Massachusetts JDAI 7th Annual Conference.
View below:

Science has proven that implicit bias exists and impacts the decisions that we, as humans, make every single day. This topic bears more discussion at all levels of our youth services systems, from school and police, to families, community providers, attorneys and advocates, court personnel and judges. Explore the links below to learn more about implicit bias and the efforts you can take to unravel your own subconscious bias.

  • The Implicit Aptitude Test
    For years, researchers at Harvard University have allowed anyone to take the Implicit Aptitude Test (IAT) which measures the associations that one has between two concepts. While racial bias is of particular interest within JDAI, the IAT has exposed bias around many other facets of humans lives, such as gender, sexual orientation, body type, etc. At times the results of the IAT can be troubling and disconcerting for the test-taker. Learn more about the IAT and take the test yourself.
  • Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot?
    By Joshua Correll, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; and Tracie Keesee, Chief of Research, Training and Technology, Denver, Colorado, Police Department
    This article, written for Police Chiefs, explains the science behind a person’s decision to shoot, or not shoot, at a suspect. The research began at the University of Chicago the goal was “to develop and refine a first-person-shooter video game, which presents a series of images of young men—some armed, some unarmed—set against realistic backgrounds such as parks or city streets. The player’s goal is to shoot any and all armed targets but not to shoot unarmed targets. Half of the targets are black, and half are white. The laboratory is using this game to investigate whether decisions to shoot at a potentially hostile target can be influenced by the target’s race.” The Police Chief article goes on to discuss a second study out of Denver which sought to replicate the result of the Chicago studies.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center outlines how stereotypes, prejudices, bias and discrimination have come to be, and how we can undo these effects upon ourselves.
  • Police are the first line of the juvenile and criminal justice system. While bias and disproportionality effect all humans and all systems, more has been studied and written about the police, then later court actors, such as prosecutors, probation, judges, and parole. One organization has gathered much of the science of bias, and attempted to translate that into training for law enforcement. Their work can be found at
  • Though based in the chemistry of our brain, bias can be controlled and fought back. Here is a 2014 Boston Globe article about individuals trying to do just that.

Helpful Resources on R.E.D.


JDAI Massachusetts produced Seeing RED as a tool for our community of committed juvenile justice stakeholders.  This film lays out the problem and the national and local best practices to address disparity.  We hope that this film will be screened in a group setting, followed by a robust discussion of what we can do to help all our children and increase equity in our system. 

Film: Seeing RED

Prepare to challenge someone’s assumptions on profiling in your training sessions. Schools and communities have used this powerful video to open dialogue on bias. Heads up, you’ll need to turn your computer speakers on. – Silent Beats

Facilitate dialogue and understanding about the impact today of a history of discriminatory laws and public policies. This video, The Unequal Opportunity Race, challenges assumptions that racial inequality is solely the product of individual failure and shortcomings. – African American Policy Forum, Inc.

Inspire an audience with the inspirational video, “Our Moment.” Mayda del Valle’s poem, along with music and striking images, focuses on fights for equity. – Equity Summit

Ask people to do something really simple: invite people into your life who don’t look like you. This TED talk, Color Blind or Color Brave?, asks us to become comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race. – TED


It's no secret that being 12 years old can be tough. A radio series called Being 12: The Year Everything Changes gives voice to children in the throes of early adolescence. Listen to New York City middle-schoolers talk about race, policing and what it's like to grow up today. – WNYC



The consequences of mass incarceration of black men have radiated out to their families. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the black family in the context of a failed criminal-justice system. – The Atlantic

Why Are So Many Preschoolers Getting Suspended? asks this story in The Atlantic. Alarming statistics suggest that preschool is becoming a point of entry to the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for African American children. – The Atlantic

The race gap for adults in incarceration is shrinking. Why is it widening for juveniles? This story looks at the numbers and the reasons why these disparities might be growing. – The Marshall Project


Repairing the Breach: A Brief History of Youth of Color in the Justice System , a report from the Burns Institute highlighted at the JDAI Inter-site Conference in September, argues that “to overcome the structurally racist legacy outlined here and reduce racial and ethnic disparities, we must be focused and intentional.”

The Racial and Ethnic Disparities Reduction Practice Manual, from the Center for Children's Law and Policy, is a web-based tool for practitioners with concrete guidance and strategies, downloadable tools and resources, and examples of successful reform work in jurisdictions throughout the country.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book is a monumental work about being black in America that every American urgently needs to read” – review on

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. “Stevenson is not only a great lawyer, he’s also a gifted writer and storyteller. His memoir should find an avid audience among players in the legal system — jurists, prosecutors, defense lawyers, legislators, academics, journalists — and especially anyone contemplating a career in criminal justice,” – review in The Washington Post.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. “A call to action for everyone concerned with racial justice and an important tool for anyone concerned with understanding and dismantling this oppressive system,” – review in Sojourners.

Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson. “Perkinson makes a convincing case that mass incarceration is the most pressing civil rights issue today… Essential reading if the nation ever hopes to move in a different, less-punitive and more-rehabilitative direction,” – review in The Boston Globe.