When Worlds Collide: Perspectives of Detainees, Parents and Detention Officers on Delinquency in the Context of Disproportionate Minority Confinement

Kate Hellenga, University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign

This paper is based on participant observation at a Midwestern county juvenile detention center, and on interviews with detention officers, detainees, and detainees' parents. Participants shared some basic assumptions about the purposes of detention, but their beliefs about detained youth, their families, and their experiences in detention varied markedly across groups. Juvenile justice personnel explained delinquent behavior and problems with detainees in largely individualized terms of personal choice, apathetic or inadequate parenting and "bad attitude." In contrast, detainees and their parents explained individual choices in part by referring to broader contextual factors such as poverty, adolescent identity development, and specific experiences of injustice such as harassment by police and negative labeling by teachers. Observations in the detention center suggest that these differences affect detention officers' interactions with detained youth, as well as influencing both groups' interpretations of events in the center. Because the majority of detainees are African American, and the majority of detention officers are European American, across-group interactions affect and are affected by participants' beliefs about race and racism. Implications of these combined influences for the detention center's role in the community and its influence on the thinking and behavior of detained youth will be discussed.

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Updated 05/20/2006