Abstract: Misattribution of Criminal Behavior and Race: A Case Study of Arizona Juvenile Lifers Institutional Misconduct Profiles (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Misattribution of Criminal Behavior and Race: A Case Study of Arizona Juvenile Lifers Institutional Misconduct Profiles

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Ahwatukee B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Husain Lateef, PhD, Assistant Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
José Ashford, Ph.D., Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Emily Cornett, BA, MSW Student, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Background and Purpose: The Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama (2012) created new pathways to correctional release for juvenile homicide offenders. In Miller, the Court introduced the irreparable corruption standard as a substantive change in law to limit natural life sentences to a rare group of juveniles whose character was perceived unlikely to change as they matured. However, more than seventy percent of all juvenile lifers serving natural life sentences nationwide are from ethnic or racial minority populations. The national overrepresentation of Black and Latino male youth assigned to natural life sentences for homicide offenses compared to White male youth raises serious questions about the misattribution by sentencing authorities on criminal risk and future risk Black and Latino juvenile offenders have for public safety.

Juvenile lifers’ Prison institutional misconduct records are used as an important metric by parole boards to evaluate maturity and influences whether discharge from a state’s department of corrections or conditional release is reasonable. The current study evaluates if race is meaningfully associated with institutional misconduct among juvenile lifers. In doing so, the study contributes to an important gap within the literature as to whether judges are attributing continued risks and concerns for public safety to racial minority juvenile lifers in disparate ways.

Methods: Data were collected utilizing information from court files obtained in collaboration with the Arizona Justice Project to identify the population of juveniles serving life sentences in Arizona before the Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) decision (n=109). In addition, we gathered demographic and prison infraction information (i.e., race/ethnicity, infraction histories, and admission dates) from the Arizona Department of Correction, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) inmate database. The analysis included a two-step clustering of guilty institutional infractions (major and minor) and prison institutional time to identify homogenous groups of misconduct profiles. Pearson’s chi-square test was used to determine if racial background was associated with cluster memberships.

Results: Cluster goodness-of-fit indices supported the presence of two mutually exclusive clusters of juvenile lifers: Low institutional risk and High institutional risk. Institutional misconduct, major infractions, and minor as well as incarceration time were all significant contributors to cluster differences. Descriptively Hispanic (n=48), White (n=25), and African American (n=24) lifers had similar representations in the low-risk and high-risk clusters. Using Pearson’s chi-square test analysis, group differences between White and non-White groups belonging to the high-risk profile were non-significant (χ2 (2) = .328, p = .567).

Conclusion and Implications: Our findings support a similar clustering profile of experiences shared across racial groups that explains institutional risk and maturation. Thus, our study further suggest that race does not provide inference to inform maturity evaluations or decide correctional discharge determinations considering public safety among Juvenile lifers. Study findings support previous literature on the national concern of misattribution of criminal risk to Black and Latino juvenile lifers. These findings have research and policy implications for social work and sentencing policy implications that will be discussed.