Disproportionate Minority Contact

Christine Martin,  Assistant Professor in UIC's Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice

Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is a juvenile-justice-system catch phrase that describes situations in which the proportion of a given minority group of youth detained or confined in a state’s secure detention facility exceeds the proportion that that group represents in the general population. In Illinois there have been several commendable and ongoing efforts made toward identifying and reducing DMC. However, the response by state and juvenile justice systems to the identification of disproportion in the contact and processing of minority youth has several problems.


First, it is at least partially motivated by money. This is because a 1988 amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act made it mandatory for all states receiving funds from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to address DMC. This amendment has produced new jobs and more work for state personnel and researchers across the nation. Currently, this act has evolved beyond simply assessing disproportion at confinement to include disproportion at contact with nine different decision points in the juvenile justice system, including arrest, referral, diversion, detention, filing petitions, adjudication, probation, secure confinement, and transfers to adult court.


Another problem with the response to DMC is that all of the empirical data collected to assess this situation are sourced from within the juvenile justice system. In Illinois, for example, the DMC reduction campaign is operated out of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and managed by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC), a federally mandated state advisory group that serves the governor, general assembly and the DHS. However, there are data available that have not been as easily extracted for understanding and addressing DMC. These include data collected from the DMC youth themselves, their caretakers, and their allies who reside in the communities from which they come. “Data, data, data, I cannot make bricks without clay!” the fictitious Sherlock Holmes said. His statement reminds us that when addressing DMC there will always be a need to collect information to determine how minority youth are processed in the juvenile justice system and to determine how to reduce their disproportionate contact where it is found. Without data, disproportion cannot be exposed.


Because the campaign to address and reduce DMC, although admirable, is funded by the government and headquartered within state and juvenile justice systems, it has been staged, fought, funded and framed from a one-sided perspective that relies on a unilateral approach to providing a solution, which typically means creating governmental programs. These programs will be fueled by a governmental mandate to decrease disproportion, and not fueled by a chief desire to help minority youth.


To learn more about this subject, attend IRRPP's November 7 event The Social Cost of America's Race to Incarcerate.

1. Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Illinois Juvenile Justice System: 2010 , published by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC) at www.ijjc.illinois.gov
2. Ritchie, G. (Director). (2009). Sherlock Holmes. [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros Pictures.