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There is little dispute that racial disparities pervade the contemporary American juvenile justice system. The persistent overrepresentation of youth of color in the system suggests that scientifically supported notions of diminished culpability of youth are not applied consistently across races. Drawing from recent studies on implicit bias and the impact of race on perceptions of adolescent culpability, Professor Henning contends that contemporary narratives portraying black and Hispanic youth as dangerous and irredeemable lead prosecutors to disproportionately reject youth as a mitigating factor for their behavior. Although racial disparities begin at arrest and persist through every stage of the juvenile justice process, this Article focuses specifically on the unique opportunity and obligation that prosecutors have to address those disparities at the charging phase of the juvenile case.

Professor Henning implores juvenile prosecutors to resist external pressures to respond punitively and symbolically to exaggerated perceptions of threat by youth of color and envisions a path toward structured decision making at the charging phase that is informed by research in adolescent development, challenges distorted notions of race and maturity, and holds prosecutors accountable for equitable decision making across race. While fully embracing legitimate prosecutorial concerns about victims’ rights and public safety, Professor Henning frames the charging decision as one requiring fairness, equity, and efficacy. Fairness requires that prosecutors evaluate juvenile culpability in light of the now well-documented features of adolescent offending. Equity demands an impartial application of the developmental research to all youth, regardless of race and socioeconomic status. Efficacy asks prosecutors to rely on scientifically validated best practices for ensuring positive youth development and achieving public safety. Thus, even when neighborhood effects and social structures produce opportunities for more serious and more frequent crime among youth of color, prosecutors have a duty to evaluate that behavior in light of the current developmental research and respond to that conduct with the same developmentally appropriate options that are so often available to white youth.

As the gatekeepers of juvenile court jurisdiction, prosecutors should work with developmental experts, school officials, and other community representatives to develop and publish juvenile charging standards that reflect these goals. To increase transparency and encourage buy-in from the public, Professor Henning recommends that prosecutors track charging decisions according to race and geographic neighborhood and provide community representatives and other stakeholders with an opportunity to review those decisions for disparate impact. Finally, to ensure that communities of color are able to respond to adolescent offending without state intervention, Professor Henning contemplates a more expansive role for prosecutors who will engage and encourage school officials and community representatives to identify and develop adequate community-based, adolescent-appropriate alternatives to prosecution.

Publication Citation

98 Cornell L. Rev. 383-462 (2013)