Although there were negligible differences among the racial groups in how frequently boys committed crimes, white boys were less likely to spend time in a facility than black and Hispanic boys who said they'd committed crimes just as frequently, as shown in the chart above. A black boy who told pollsters he had committed just five crimes in the past year was as likely to have been placed in a facility as a white boy who said he'd committed 40.
More recent statistics from the Department of Justice show that the juvenile justice system has continued to treat black boys more harshly. Although the overall number of cases in juvenile court has declined sharply since 2008, blacks still account for a third of cases in juvenile court, far more than their share of the population.
Advocates for children have long protested against what they describe as a "school-to-prison pipeline," in which strict discipline and arrests in classrooms damage children's long-term prospects, making them less likely to succeed in life and more likely to run afoul of the law in the future. A year ago, the Obama administration urged schools to reconsider zero-tolerance policies, which Attorney General Eric Holder said "have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems."
"Education and our prison system are very much connected, unfortunately," said Thena Robinson-Mock, an attorney who has represented children in juvenile proceedings.
The study provides new detail on how that pipeline evolved, showing that the disparities cannot be explained by different rates of criminality among racial and ethnic groups.
The study compared results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1980 and 2000, which is the latest date for which detailed data are available. Surveyors asked youth whether they had stolen, destroyed property, attacked someone or sold drugs in the last year. Of the boys between the ages of 15 and 18 surveyed in 1980, 59 percent said they had, compared to just 28 percent of similarly aged boys surveyed in 2000.
The later generation, however, was just as likely to have been charged with a crime, and if they were charged, they were dealt with more severely. Among those charged with a crime in the earlier cohort, 35 percent were diverted out of court and 49 percent were convicted, and of those boys, just a quarter were placed in a correctional facility. Of those surveyed in 2000, only 13 percent were diverted. Sixty-one percent were convicted, and 38 percent of those were imprisoned.
Robinson-Mock, who now works at The Advancement Project, a civil rights group, said that the increasing presence of police officers in schools meant that offenses that would have previously been dealt with in the principal's office are now handled at the precinct. One of her clients had been arrested after throwing a pencil at a teacher, she recalled.
The causes of the racial disparities are difficult to identify, said Andersen, one of the study's authors. Perhaps individual juvenile officers are making decisions with a level of racial prejudice, or perhaps boys of color lack legal representation that would help to win a more lenient decision in their cases.
Meanwhile, an annual survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health continues to find lower rates of drug use among blacks than whites, with rates for Hispanics in the middle.
"These 'get-tough' policies, they certainly affect all youth, but this shows that youth who are racial minorities bear the brunt," Andersen said.
Contact with the justice system can be devastating for the young. Criminologists have found that young people who are stopped by the police or arrested are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and to be arrested again in the future, and that youths with a criminal record are less likely to finish high school and college, compared to otherwise similar peers.
Taken together, these findings raise questions about the purpose of the system of juvenile courts.
"The juvenile justice system, as we know, was designed to be a separate system that was more about rehabilitation, and addressing the root causes," Robinson-Mock said. "In practice, it's highly punitive."