The term wrongful conviction typically refers to the conviction or adjudication of individuals who are factually innocent. Decades of research has rightfully focused on uncovering contributing factors of convictions of factually innocent people to inform policy and practice. However, in this paper we expand our conceptualization of wrongful conviction. Specifically, we propose a redefinition that includes other miscarriages of justice: A wrongful conviction is a conviction or adjudication for someone who never should have been involved in the juvenile or criminal legal system in the first place. Although there are various miscarriages of justice that might appropriately be categorized under this reconceptualization, in this paper we focus specifically on those whose system involvement was the result of engaging in no wrongdoing beyond normative adolescent behavior. With this reconceptualization in mind, we highlight how the intersection of youthfulness and race puts youth of color at risk of both wrongful conviction based on factual innocence and wrongful conviction based on criminalization of normative youthful behavior. We rely on a cumulative disadvantage framework to demonstrate how system responses to both youthfulness and race drive youth of color deeper into the legal system and further contribute to their wrongful conviction. In doing so, we describe how the disadvantage created by youthfulness and racial bias compound within and across each stage of system processing. We also illustrate that it is the behavior of youth of color, not white youth, that is disproportionately criminalized. Youth of color are currently and have historically been overrepresented within the juvenile and criminal legal systems; this disparity can be seen even amongst the youngest system-involved youth. We conclude by presenting recommendations for future research efforts to account for multiple system time points, race, and youthfulness. Finally, we describe what we believe to be important considerations for changes to policy and practice that might begin to correct the unnecessary and disproportionate wrongful charging and conviction of youth of color.



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