Is RRI “D.O.A” in Virginia?
Current state of DMC in the U.S. and Virginia
Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is a worrisome problem in the U.S. The issue has received national attention since 1988 when Congress first modified the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. As summarized by Heidi Hsia in 2009,1 the purpose of the modification was to address the “overwhelming evidence that minority youth were disproportionately confined in the nation’s secure facilities”. Since then, significant revisions have been made to the Act in 1992 and 2002 with the intent to refine disproportionate minority contact’s definition and efforts to reduce its effect.
The 2002 amendment of the Act is especially noteworthy for broadening the discourse on DMC beyond just confinement to encompass a wider range of “contact” minority youths experience within the criminal justice system. In this current climate, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention mandates that all states receiving funding under the Title II portion of the Formula Grants Program track and reduce disproportionate minority contact. Among the fund-eligible states, Virginia offers some illustration that disproportionate minority contact is still a problem requiring much attention.
As reported by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (2013), when compared to White youths, minority youths are 73% more likely to receive referrals to juvenile court (intake), 29% more likely to be found “delinquent” when adjudicated in such courts, and 59% more likely to experience some form of confinement in a juvenile correctional facility. These findings are consistent with current empirical literature stating minority youth are over-represented at every critical juncture of the U.S. criminal justice system despite the aforementioned mandates. Further, this differential exposure persists despite research debunking significant differences in rates of juvenile offending between minority and non-minority youth.
The DMC Problem in Virginia
One way to address DMC is through sound measurement and accurate reporting. Accordingly, Virginia employs measures both statewide and locally to address DMC and improve juvenile justice administration. However, numerous obstacles have hampered the effectiveness of these measures. For instance, Virginia currently coordinates DMC reduction efforts among a byzantine network of localized collaborating agencies that is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. As a result, expectations are often ambiguous, reduction efforts are inconsistent, and accountability is problematic. While having such an implementation strategy tailored to specific localities has certain advantages in theory, it often results in inconsistent results in actual practice.
One example of this muddled implementation of evidence-based practices is the relative rate index (RRI) data used throughout the state. Incorporating such variables as the number of referrals to juvenile court, the number of cases diverted, and cases resulting in delinquent findings, RRI generally works as follows:
A single index number indicates the extent to which the rate of a particular contact or activity differs for minority and majority youth. It does not calculate the odds of particular types of contact. Rates above 1.0 indicate that the incidence ratio is higher for the given population group (e.g., a non-White group) than for the comparative group (e.g., a majority White population); rates below 1.0 indicate that the incidence ratio is below that for the comparative group. Results may be skewed or unable to be calculated due to low raw numbers.
Consider then that recent RRI data suggests that the city of Richmond, VA was much more successful in reducing DMC at the intake level than Fairfax County, VA even though both areas fall under the same federal- and state-level DMC reduction mandates. Therefore, in the interest of augmenting DMC literature and discourse, and ultimately enhancing efforts to reduce DMC, Virginia and like-minded states must address the problems presented by measures like RRI.
RRI in Virginia
Since 2006, the OJJDP has managed efforts to record and reduce DMC via a web-based central repository: the DMC Data Entry System. The system is also used to calculate RRI for each state. Virginia incorporates numerous variables into its RRI formula, including the number of referrals to juvenile court, the number of cases diverted, and cases resulting in delinquent findings.
As of 2015, all states have been deemed to be compliant with the DMC reduction efforts required under the JJDP Act and have thus been awarded grant funding from OJJDP. This means that every state is currently providing some amount of data that can be converted into an RRI measure. Less clear, however, is the extent of data coverage for DMC measurement in each state, which seems sporadic at best.
Again, using Virginia as illustration, only 29 of Virginia’s 133 regions (22%) contributed RRI data in the last reporting cycle. Furthermore, only 28% (n=37) of the regions even met the OJJDP’s prerequisite of “youth populations totaling 10,000 and up”. This draws into question the representativeness of the data provided. Conceptually, DMC can occur anywhere there is a measurable minority population. For Virginia, that number far exceeds the 29 areas that reported. In fact, it is both unfair and illogical to base statewide DMC policy efforts on RRI calculations when less than a quarter of the regions in the state are represented by such estimates.
As an operational construct, RRI itself seems to be a sound measure of DMC as nearly all of the variables used to calculate Virginia’s RRI meaningfully contribute to the construct. Further, roughly 82% of variation in the data is explained by that construct (high by most analytical standards in criminal justice). Yet, with such limited data coverage, it is harder to generalize these findings statewide. In turn, RRI loses validity as a comprehensive measure of DMC. Presuming all counties have access to the DMC Data Entry System, and those that do not can be provided with such access relatively easily, there’s no reason to expect less than full or nearly full participation from all Virginia regions in data contributions towards the statewide RRI.
A way forward…
Clearly, minority youth in the U.S. are more likely to be arrested, receive probation, be held in secure detention of some kind, and/or be transferred to adult court than their White counterparts. Due to congressional legislation on DMC, we can observe these trends both in Virginia and across every state due to the ubiquity of RRI as a measure of DMC. However, in order to make better use of RRI, we must push for more than the current data provided. For Virginia and states in general, regions with smaller youth populations (less than 10,000) need not be excluded on the basis of their size alone.
Additionally, while the current RRI formula is rather robust, an argument can be made to expand it. Consider that experts offer a plethora of viable explanations for DMC, including but not limited to: systemic and individualized racial biases, variations in family structure, presence of informal social controls bonds and resource deprivation. Accounting for additional variables such as these should lead to an even stronger estimation of DMC, and perhaps even reveal strains of the phenomenon unique to certain states.
Improving RRI, as well as the overall scientific rigor of DMC measure should help to reduce the amount of inconclusive literature on DMC that invites doubt as to the progress of efforts to shed light on why such racial disparity persists. Virginia could and should serve as the vanguard for disentangling fact from fiction in the DMC discourse by confronting the under-reporting of RRI that greatly contributes to misunderstandings and flawed resolutions associated with DMC reduction.
justice system: A mixed-method study. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 26(6), 13.
Also see: Piquero, A. R. (2008). Disproportionate Minority Contact. The Future of Children, 18(2), 22.
Also see: Weis, J. G. (1986). Issues in the measurement of criminal careers Criminal careers and “career criminals" (Vol. 2, pp. 50). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
 Coleman, A. R. (2016). A Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Chronology: 1988 to Date. Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/dmc/chronology.html