Gatekeepers of the Juvenile Justice System: Intake Officers, Decision Making and Race Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System

Courtney Porter

Advisor: Devon Johnson, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: David B. Wilson, Danielle Rudes, Katherine Williams

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 10, 2019, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


Minority youth are overrepresented within the juvenile justice system at all decision points including arrests, referrals to juvenile court, diversion, adjudication, probation placement, secure detention placement, and cases transferred to adult court. Practitioners and researchers have made strides to explain and address these disparities by focusing on the processes and factors influencing each stage of the justice process. This dissertation adds to the literature by examining how officials at the intake stage use their professional discretion along with other information to decide whether a youth should be sent to a diversion program or should be sent to juvenile court. While discretion is a necessary part of the youth justice system, it may unwittingly lead to an increase in racial disparities. 

Expanding upon past research, this study used a multilevel model to analyze more than 20,000 intake records from Fairfax County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.  Controlling for numerous demographic and case characteristics, this dissertation explored the direct and interactive effects of the race/ethnicity of youth and the race/ethnicity of Juvenile Intake Officers (JIOs) on intake outcomes. The results indicate that JIOs were less likely to divert both Black and Hispanic youth compared to White youth. In addition, while variation was found between JIOs, the race/ethnicity of the JIO was not a significant influence on the decision to divert. Based on qualitative interviews with current intake officers, the study also explores other factors that may influence JIOs’ decision to divert. The implications of the results for research and practice are discussed.