Despite widespread recognition of children’s unique attributes and legal status, any single exercise of leniency is necessarily predicated on an initial recognition that the particular child who stands before the court is, in fact, a child—and this recognition is more nuanced than it might seem. The notion of childhood is a social construct—one that is informed by race, among other factors. Research has shown that Black boys, in particular, are often perceived as less innocent and more adult than their white male peers and, as a result, they are more likely to be assigned greater culpability for their actions, which increases their risk of contact with the juvenile justice system. This report refers to this phenomenon, which effectively reduces or removes the consideration of childhood as a mediating factor in Black youths’ behavior, as “adultification”.
To date, limited quantitative research has assessed the existence of adultification for Black girls—that is, the extent to which race and gender, taken together, influence our perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. However, preliminary hypotheses based on research and guided by ethnographic and historical studies support this theory.