• Social Workers and Disproportionate Minority Contact: A Mixed Methods Study

      Afkinich, Jenny Lee; Bright, Charlotte Lyn (2020)
      Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is the disproportionate representation of racial minority youth at all levels of the juvenile justice system. DMC is evident in rates of initial arrests, referrals to court, delinquency findings/ adjudications, out-of-home placements, and transfers to adult criminal court. Race remains a significant predictor of legal outcomes for youth even when factors such as prior legal history and current charge severity are considered despite White and minority youth reporting similar levels of offending. This mixed methods study examined the relationship between community social workers employed by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SC DJJ) in the agency’s county offices and DMC. Administrative data from SC DJJ was utilized to determine the extent of DMC in the state, to compare legal outcomes (i.e., receiving confinement dispositions and being waived to adult court) for youth in counties with community social workers to youth in counties that do not employ community social workers, and to compare the legal outcomes for youth in counties with community social workers over time. The results indicate that DMC continues to exist in South Carolina when measured via relative rate indices. Overall, there was little evidence that employing community social workers is sufficient to reduce DMC at the disposition or waiver stage. Qualitative interviews with nine of the 11 community social workers were used to identify and understand the mechanisms, barriers, and facilitators for reducing DMC. The findings suggest multiple nuanced ways the social workers can play a role in reducing DMC. The social workers identified two stages in the juvenile justice process in which they can and have had an impact on increasing equity: (1) out-of-home placement decisions for youth on probation or parole and (2) determining probation requirements. The social workers described a need for hiring additional social workers. They also believe they could train police officers and school officials about alternatives to making a referral to SC DJJ to reduce inequitable decisions at the front-end of the juvenile justice system. Implications for the study include an expanded role for community social workers and new ways to examine DMC quantitatively.