Since 1988, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act has required ongoing state monitoring of disparities that may indicate biased decision-making in juvenile justice. Measurement activities initially focused on youth in secure confinement, but later recognized that disparities may also be the result of earlier steps in the juvenile justice system involving the decisions of law enforcement, prosecutors and juvenile court judges to divert youth from advancing deeper into the juvenile justice system. During this period two approaches to measuring vital signs in this area emerged.
The current JJDP Act requires the relative rate index (RRI) to measure disparities in the juvenile justice system. It addresses the contributions between 9 key decision points spanning arrest, court and custody events and transfer to criminal court. However, it also involves gathering data from multiple agencies' administrative systems. These systems vary in their capacity across and within states and may not contain the geographic detail necessary to identify jurisdictions with symptoms of a problem requiring deeper exploration and detail.
An earlier method that still has some merit for state or county reporting is called the disproportionate representation index (DRI). DRI's are easier to develop and explain but mask the contribution of each decision to the cumulative problem of overrepresentation of youth in secure settings which the RRI indicator was developed to address.
Using national data collections to develop indicators
There is no national data collection specifically designed to monitor vital signs on racial and ethnic fairness at the state-level. However, existing collections can be applied in a interim way to advance discussions. The preferred RRI indicator is easily available for a national snapshot on the issue but lacks the ability to drill into the state or local details necessary for focusing reform advocacy. Simple rates are common per-capita metrics available at the state-level, but with many limitations. Inconsistent ethnicity reporting presents a challenge regardless of approach, leading to a possible over count of white youth in the juvenile justice system which distort White-to-Hispanic/Latino ratios but also impact RRI metrics for other groups.