Juvenile Referrals: An in-Depth Look

Juvenile Referrals: An in-Depth Look

N. E. Schafer

"Juvenile Referrals: An in-Depth Look" by N. E. Schafer. Alaska Justice Forum 15(1): 2-5 (Spring 1998). The Justice Center recently completed the second phase of a study of racial disproportionality in juvenile referrals in Alaska. The first phase, discussed in a previous Alaska Justice Forum article, "Minorities Referred at Higher Rates: Analysis of DFYS Data" (Fall 1997), examined four years of referral data - over 28,000 referrals for over 14,000 juveniles. Phase II examines in detail a small sample of 112 individuals from the larger data set. This article looks at the 33 youth from the Phase II study who had five or more referrals, examining individual criminal histories and family backgrounds as revealed in the files.

The Justice Center recently completed the second phase of a study of racial disproportionality in juvenile referrals in Alaska. (The study has been funded by a gift from Cook Inlet Region, Inc.) The first phase of the study examined four years of referral data—over 28,000 referrals for over 14,000 juveniles—made available by the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS). A previous Alaska Justice Forum article, "Minorities Referred at Higher Rates: Analysis of DFYS Data" (Fall 1997) discussed the results of the Phase I study. For Phase II, we examined in detail a small sample of 112 individuals from the larger data set.

In both the smaller and the larger studies we found that minority youth were disproportionally represented among those who accumulated multiple referrals, that is, those youth who had five or more referrals in their files. In this article we will look only at those 33 children from this sample who had five or more referrals. We will look at individual criminal histories and family backgrounds as revealed in the files.

Alaska Native youth were most likely to have five or more referrals, constituting more than half of all youth in this category (54.5%), while white youth formed only 12.5 percent and African American youth, 37.0 percent. Girls were just about one-fourth of the youth with at least five referrals (24.2%). Eighty percent of the girls who had accumulated five or more referrals were Alaska Native; 20 percent were white. No black females accumulated five or more referrals.

Table 1. Number of Referrals by Race and Gender

We began by comparing the age of the 33 multiple offenders at the first recorded referral to the age of those with only one referral. Clearly, the older the child is at the first referral, the less time available to accumulate additional referrals before turning eighteen, and the younger the child, the more time available. (We should note that some of our sample were so young at first referral that their referral histories may not have been complete at the time data were collected in Fall 1997.) We found no significant difference in the mean age at the time of first referral for white youth between those who had only one referral and those who had accumulated five or more. However, for Alaska Native and black youth who had accumulated five or more referrals, the age at the first referral was significantly lower than for those who had only one. For white youth with one referral the mean age was 14; for offenders with multiple referrals, it was 14.35. However, the mean age of single referral for Alaska Native youth was 15.5 while for Native multiple offenders it was 12.6. Black single referral youth had a mean age of 15, while those with multiple referrals had a mean age of 13.5 at the first referral.

It is worth presenting the details of the referral histories for some of the multiple offenders to understand the scope of the delinquency. In our study, we paid particular attention to any mention in files of alcohol, weapons, and gang behavior because these are current social concerns. We will look at males and females separately.

Male Multiple Offenders

Two Alaska Native males began their lengthy referral histories at extremely young ages—five and seven. The five-year-old lived in a Native community. He was charged with concealment of merchandise for shoplifting a package of nuts worth $.99. A month later, with a friend, he burned down a shed, causing $400 in damage. At age nine he was charged with criminal trespass in the second degree for entering the village school through an unlocked back door. He and his friend played in the room but took nothing from it. At ten, the boy was referred in connection with a missing/stolen bicycle, but since nothing linked him to the theft, the charge was dismissed. His next referral was for minor in possession of alcohol at age sixteen. Five children were involved but only one was drunk; there was no evidence that this youth was drinking. At age sixteen he was arrested for DWI, and at seventeen he was charged with criminal trespass: He was in a store from which he had been banned. Six months later, at age seventeen, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license.

The child who began his career at age seven was charged the first time with breaking windows on a trailer in the village in which he lived. There was no incident report in the file, but the event was entered into the log. His next referral occurred when he was almost sixteen. He was intoxicated and charged with minor consuming alcohol. His mother was unable to come for him because she herself was intoxicated, so he was released to another relative. He was referred three more times for minor consuming—all in less than a year. At age seventeen, he was charged with criminal mischief in the third degree as well as minor consuming. He stole a snowmachine while drunk. He was referred to an alcohol program.

These two young boys were not involved in threatening delinquent behavior, though in some cases the behavior was costly. One of the youth had serious alcohol problems and resided in a community where alcohol use and abuse were viewed with alarm. Local concerns may make law enforcement officials more likely to formally intervene in such cases. In contrast, in Anchorage, such behavior was often treated informally, with relatively few referrals to DFYS for underage drinking.

Two other Native males were very young at their first referrals—one was eleven and the other twelve. Each lived in a small village and each was first referred for burglary. The younger was later referred for three more burglaries, criminal mischief, assault (four counts), and probation violations. That he was intoxicated was mentioned only once in the file. The twelve-year-old began with a charge of burglary at the village store. (The door was ajar but nothing was missing.) He later was charged with theft for stealing money from a teacher. He accumulated another burglary charge, two assault charges, and a referral for harassment (with a friend, he made annoying phone calls to police). There was no mention of alcohol in his file.

Only two more files of Native males had alcohol references. In one case, all five referrals were for minor consuming alcohol. Another boy was referred several times for burglary and criminal mischief, but intoxication was mentioned only once in the file. In another case, drinking was suspected but not proven. The referrals for this youth were for burglary, criminal mischief, and/or theft.

Theft, criminal mischief (vandalism), and burglary were common charges in the remaining files, with fourth degree assault also appearing in several files. There was one referral for misconduct involving a weapon, but this was the only charge involving possible danger to others. The vandalism was often very costly—e.g., slitting tires on all the cars in a one or two-block area—but it usually involved a group. The thefts and burglaries were usually quite minor (cigarettes, beer, candy, soda). The assaults were often fights.

Among the African American youth three were referred for the first time for burglary, one for a charge of vehicle tampering and theft, one for criminal mischief, two for misdemeanor assault, and the remainder for theft.

An examination of the three burglars is illustrative. The first, age thirteen, was charged with burglary after entering a house with some companions intending to steal a gun. The following March, now fourteen, he was referred for criminal trespass. He had agreed to stay away from the community recreation center but kept returning, and police were called. Just two months later he was charged with theft for stealing cigars and a lighter from a grocery store. The following month he was charged with vandalism. He had been with other young males on bicycles who were breaking into parked cars. In a matter of weeks he was trespassing at the recreation center again, and a month after that he was detained for violating his probation and released after two days. Two weeks later he was again shoplifting cigars. At the end of the month he was again detained for violating probation. He was adjudicated in court and placed in a group home. Ten days later he was charged with assault for threatening another resident with a knife. In November, still aged fourteen, he was institutionalized.

The second burglar's referral history began when, at fifteen, he entered a neighbor's house in an effort to help his codefendant retrieve his stereo. He admitted to his involvement in the plan and to taking a gun. He was referred for a second burglary, committed just two days later, but was found not to be involved, although his probation officer believed he knew about the burglary. The following month he was charged with assault in the fourth degree and criminal trespass for threatening students and staff at the bus loading after school. He and his codefendant threatened to kill the teacher who tried to stop them. The next month he was charged with misconduct involving weapons and theft when, in a burglary with an adult codefendant, he broke into a sports store and stole cash and two rifles. (His mother turned in the one he kept.) The same month he was referred for stealing snowmachines, and he was petitioned on all the charges from the previous two months. A couple months later he was referred for throwing rocks through the windows of a school. In the following year he and his codefendant started a fire in a school locker. A year later he was charged with theft.

The third burglar began his career just weeks before his sixteenth birthday. He entered a residence with others, stole items and vandalized. He knew the daughter of the house and believed all had been invited in. He returned to help clean up broken eggs. Later the same year he was accused of involvement in an incident with several others who were attacking other youths with baseball bats. Also the same year he was charged with criminal mischief when, with others, he set a fire in a laundromat. Still sixteen, he was charged with misconduct involving a controlled substance. Drugs and money were found in his school locker. The same year he was charged with reckless endangerment for shooting a friend in the leg. He and the friend maintained it was accidental. Several months later he was a passenger in a stolen car and a gun was found under the driver's seat. This was a probation violation as well as a new charge. He was institutionalized and released from custody about eighteen months later, just after his nineteenth birthday.

These three black juveniles caused a great deal of trouble entailing considerable expense. They also were involved in weapons violations, increasing their perceived dangerousness. Four other black repeat offenders had weapons violations among their later referrals, and most included in their referral histories violent behavior or threats of violence. In one case the last referral was for murder.

A comparison with the three white males who accumulated at least five referrals reveals considerable differences. One of the white offenders began his referral history at age eleven. With his brother he was charged with criminal mischief for spraying gang graffiti. A month later he stole a pizza and was referred to a shoplifting program. The next month the brothers were caught stealing car stereos and the subject also admitted to stealing a purse. He was referred again four months later for assault on a fellow junior high student, again in company with his brother. Four more referrals were based on charges of assault—one against his mother's boyfriend, one against a teacher at school, and one against a neighbor at whom the youth pointed a gun after being caught stealing from his van. At his last referral he was fourteen years old.

The second youth began at age fifteen with two referrals for underage drinking. The second of these also involved theft. The next two referrals were for criminal mischief, followed by one for violation of probation. The last referral was for theft—two months before the juvenile turned eighteen.

The third white youth accumulated nine referrals, the first for theft at age fourteen. (This file also includes reference to two incidents prior to the first referral, which are notes rather than formal referrals.) The boy left home threatening suicide and his mother called the police. The following day she saw him and tried to get him to go with her. He threatened her with a knife. Apparently some legal process occurred because he was next referred for violating a domestic violence order. Then he was referred for shoplifting. He left the state and returned. Eight months after the theft he was referred for misconduct involving a weapon (a BB gun) when police caught him and his friends throwing rocks at streetlights. Three weeks later he was caught driving a stolen vehicle; the next day he was referred for theft (shoes taken from a store); and a week after that for stealing from a grocery store. Six months later he was reported as a runaway. Almost two years later he was referred for disorderly conduct. At this point he was within two weeks of his eighteenth birthday.

Clearly the records of these multiple offenders vary considerably by race. Alaska Native youth tended to accumulate referrals in villages for behavior which would very likely be ignored or resolved informally in a large city. Native youth whose records were accumulated in cities were less likely to be referred for alcohol violations, though their referrals for property offenses sometimes included consumption of alcohol.

African American boys who accumulated at least five referrals had referrals for assault and weapons violations as well as property offenses. We should note that nearly all African American youth in the sample lived in urban areas. Among the ten multiple black offenders, one lived outside Anchorage, but spent time there, and two lived in Fairbanks. The remainder were referred in Anchorage.

The white youth with at least five referrals were quite different from one another. One was referred in a small town for liquor violations and minor theft; his record sounds as if it could be that of one of the Native villagers. Another seemed to be involved in gang or gang "wannabe" behavior, and a third appeared to have been emotionally or mentally disturbed.

A recurring theme among those with multiple referrals was that the youth's home life was at least questionable, if not dysfunctional. The sixteen-year-old white drinker was on his own in a fishing town; both parents were out of state. The gang-involved boy lived with his mother and brother. According to intake notes, his mother was not particularly concerned with his behavior. He was in a residential psychiatric facility more than once.

The third boy may also have been involved in a gang. His father lived out of state. His mother refused to take him in after he threatened her. The police then took him to shelters after arrests. He was admitted to a psychiatric facility in Anchorage and to another in the lower 48. He was diagnosed at the psychiatric hospital as a sociopath destined for more criminal behavior.

The Alaska Native multiple offenders seemed to come from broken families where alcohol was a problem. Only two of these youth lived with both parents. Two lived with their fathers, the remainder with mothers and/or grandparents. Field notes in several files mentioned intoxicated parents (e.g., mother too drunk to come for him; all adults in home were intoxicated). One boy seemed often to be left with others while his mother was away; his referrals seemed correlated with her absence. Others were in group homes for some part of their referral histories. In one case the village tribal council said a youth could not return to the village (although he did). At least one had a sibling in jail and some had siblings as co-offenders.

The African American multiple offenders were all from cities—primarily Anchorage or, in one case, a growing community near Anchorage. That youth was living with a friend and did not know where his parents were, although he knew that his father recently had been released from prison. Two other files noted jailed or imprisoned parents. Three more lived with grandparents, but at least one of these youth was so out of control he was placed in shelters and group homes for much of the time covered in his referral history. Three of the black youth lived with aunts or aunts and uncles. Several files noted moves to the lower 48 to stay with other parents or relatives. One of the African American boys, whose record reflected minimal "dangerousness," was in multiple placements in Alaska—two foster homes, two mental health facilities, one temporary shelter, and one residential group home.

It is clear that youths who accumulated several referrals did not have very stable living situations. In some cases their homes could only be described as chaotic. In some cases parents and guardians refused to take the boy in; in two, the parent requested more severe sanctions. In only one case was abuse by parents established in the file, but some of the files were not complete.

Female Multiple Referrals

In our sample, there were only ten females who accumulated at least five referrals. Eight were Alaska Native and two were white. These girls were in living situations which were just as chaotic as those of the boys.

The girl with the least stable home life lived with mother, father, grandparents, and foster parents, and in a psychiatric facility and a residential group home. She began her referrals with a charge of minor consuming alcohol. She next was referred for trespass when she went into a fast food restaurant from which she had previously been barred. She was referred again for minor consuming alcohol and then for misconduct involving a controlled substance. She was referred for driving her grandfather's car without his permission or a license. She was also referred for criminal trespass at the high school, from which she had also been barred. She accumulated six more referrals, including some probation violations and leaving placement in a substance abuse program.

One Alaska Native girl, whose history began at age nine, lived in a Native village. She was initially referred for second degree burglary and criminal mischief. She and a companion had entered a daycare center through an unlocked door. They did considerable damage to the premises and stole some dolls. Her record does not show another referral until age fifteen, when she was charged with underage drinking after being found staggering on the beach. She accumulated four more referrals, each including underage drinking. One of these four also involved a charge of DWI; another included assault in the fourth degree (she kicked a police officer).

Minor consuming alcohol featured prominently in the referral histories of other Alaska Native females, with one girl accumulating thirteen referrals in a two-year period, ten of which included minor consuming alcohol. Only one file contained no reference to alcohol. This girl had six referrals for theft and one for burglary.

One of the white girls who had at least five referrals came from a very chaotic living situation. Her mother asked the state to take her because she was so unmanageable. She had several placements and was institutionalized at the training school. She continually ran away from home and appears to have been involved with an adult male who dealt cocaine. He may have been her pimp, although her referral record does not reflect prostitution. The record includes several assaults, some on her mother, some on other girls. The record also includes misconduct involving a controlled substance, attempted escape, burglary, and theft.

The other white female lived with both parents. She was referred three times for minor consuming alcohol, twice in conjunction with other offenses. Her record included a theft, a burglary, and criminal trespass. She was also referred for being suspected of receiving money which her brother had stolen.

The Alaska Native girls who appeared in the five-or-more-referrals category could be differentiated by place of referral. Girls who lived in villages or small towns were more likely to accumulate referrals for minor consuming alcohol than were urban-dwelling girls. Police priorities, visibility, and local concerns may play a role.


It is important to note again that in this article we have looked at a very small subsample of juvenile offenders—33 individuals who each accumulated five or more referrals before turning eighteen. Any conclusions drawn from this examination must take into account the limited size of the sample. What this in-depth examination does suggest is that lengthy referral histories may be associated with age at first referral and with location at first referral. The review of individual files also revealed, unsurprisingly, that the family and living situations of these 33 multiple offenders were particularly unstable.

N.E. Schafer is a professor with the Justice Center. The report on which this article is based, A Comparison by Race of Juvenile Referrals in Alaska: Phase II Report, is available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format on the Justice Center Web Site. The Phase I report, Disproportionate Representation of Minorities in the Alaska Juvenile Justice System, is also available .