Jeffrey A. Butts
June 29, 2015
What exactly is juvenile justice?
Roughly speaking, juvenile justice is the system of law enforcement, courts, and social services that communities use to respond to the illegal acts of youth. A more precise definition would be complicated due to the varying ways that juvenile laws are written and implemented across the country. Like many other facets of American law, there is no one system of juvenile law in the United States. Each state and territory has its own system, and even within states there are variations among cities and counties. Juvenile justice systems in large cities, for example, are often more complex than those in rural areas. In the smallest towns, there may not even be a separate court for juveniles. Young offenders might be handled in the same courtrooms and in front of the same judges as older offenders, but for juveniles the court would use different procedures that conform to juvenile law.
So, a “juvenile” is the same thing as a “minor” – someone under age 18, right?
Not quite. In some states, this is nearly true. In states like Florida and Pennsylvania, for example, young people arrested by the police before their 18th birthdays are considered legal “juveniles” and their offenses will likely be adjudicated in a juvenile court or family court operating under the state’s legal code governing the crimes of children. In about a dozen states like Georgia and Michigan, however, juvenile procedures are used only until a young person reaches the age of 17, and in a couple of places (namely, New York and North Carolina), it’s the 16th birthday that triggers the end of juvenile procedures.* If youth over that age commit illegal acts, they will be processed in the regular criminal court.
* This was accurate as of 2015.
In other words, juveniles are the young offenders under whatever age is used to define the criminal court’s jurisdiction?
Sorry, not exactly. There are a bunch of exceptions in every state. Youth who would otherwise be eligible for juvenile handling simply due to their age may be “transferred” to the criminal court (i.e., excluded from juvenile court) for other reasons. Some youth are transferred because they have committed an offense designated for criminal court processing in their state (e.g., armed robbery), or perhaps because they committed a particular offense after a certain age (e.g., serious assault after age 14), or maybe because they have committed too many offenses in the past (e.g., a third burglary charge). The decision to send a youth to criminal court will often be made by a judge after considering the facts of the case, in some states (e.g., Colorado and Florida) the transfer decisions can be made by a prosecutor without any input from a judge. Some states even make criminal court transfers mandatory or automatic for particular charges, based on laws passed by the state legislator and signed by the governor. So, the term “juvenile” is a legal designation that applies to some, but not all law violators under the age of 18.
Really, juvenile justice can be that different from state to state?
Yes, but you can find basic features that are common to most systems. Every community, for example, will have some type of intake or initial review of new crimes referred by law enforcement and involving a juvenile suspect. Next, there will be some form of pre-trial procedure during which the prosecutor (or sometimes another agency) decides whether to file charges against the youth with a formal petition. If a petition is filed, some form of adjudication process will be involved, often including one or more court hearings to ascertain the facts of the case and establish the youth’s responsibility for the illegal act. If the youth is “adjudicated” as a delinquent (similar to a finding of guilt), a “disposition” process (sometimes involving a different court hearing) will be used to impose any services or sanctions that are deemed appropriate (similar to a “sentence”). After the court’s final disposition, a state or county agency might be ordered to take legal responsibility for the youth. In such cases, the youth might be described as “committed” or “placed” with that agency. These processes can still vary considerably from community to community. To make things even more complicated, state governments use a wide variety of different words to describe each part of the process and the range of agencies involved.
So, the juvenile justice system includes the police, juvenile courts, and the agencies responsible for providing services and sanctions after a youth goes to court?
Yes, but more than that. You might even say that the juvenile justice system includes the agencies and community groups that work with young people to prevent them from entering the juvenile justice system in the first place, or to keep them from going back to court after a prior incident. These agencies may also work with young people in lieu of court adjudication. So, a judge might withhold formal adjudication as long as the youth and family agree to participate in a voluntary service plan. This could still be considered part of the juvenile justice system– as should all the various forms of non-residential interventions. Even after young people are adjudicated by juvenile courts, relatively few of them (perhaps 20%) are placed in group homes, treatment centers, or correctional facilities. Most juvenile offenders are served by community-based, non-residential programs, and many of these are non-governmental, non-profit organizations. These allied agencies might be primarily affiliated with the child welfare system, or they might be drug treatment providers, youth prevention agencies, recreation programs, arts programs, schools, and faith-based organizations. So, if we include all the community groups and organizations that might be involved in helping young people stay out of trouble and out of the courts, the definition of “juvenile justice” becomes pretty comprehensive.
If there are so many variations and so many parts of the system, what does it mean when we read statistics about youth in “the” juvenile justice system?
Ah, good question. Such statistics mean nothing unless they include some information about the source of data and the point in “the system” where the numbers were gathered. For example, you might have people say that 70 percent of youth “in the juvenile justice system” have diagnosable mental health disorders, but that number is not describing all youthful offenders. It is just about youth held in secure correctional facilities or detention centers. The same statistic would be much lower–anywhere from 15 to 40 percent—for disorders measured among all youth arrested by police, or all those on probation, etc. The same thing applies to statistics about drugs, emotional problems, and trauma: the prevalence rates for these problems among youthful offenders may be relatively low at the earliest stages of the juvenile justice system (i.e., at first detection and arrest). But, as youth penetrate the system further, and as offenders who are not diverted and not handled informally accumulate in the latter stages of the system, the prevalence of serious problems grows.
From Mental Health and Drug Disorders Less Common at Early Stages of Juvenile Justice. John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Does this mean that things like trauma, drug problems, and mental disorders are not as important in juvenile justice as some people think?
No, it doesn’t, but it means that their importance for crime reduction depends on which population is being considered. For youth in the deep end of the system—in secure facilities and detention–these factors may be critical. In fact, these problems often prevent youth from successfully reentering the community after juvenile placements and they can interfere with a youth’s attainment of educational and employment goals. On the other hand, these factors are less critical for prevention and early intervention programs. The fact that prevalence rates for these factors are much lower among offender populations at the earliest stages of the justice system suggests that they are not the primary causes of youth crime, especially for those first acts of delinquency. In other words, while it would be appropriate for services in the deep end of the juvenile justice system to include a focus on mental and behavioral disorders and the effects of trauma, these issues should be lower priorities for prevention and early intervention programs.
So what services should be priorities for prevention and early intervention?
The key is to focus on the factors that most differentiate youth actually involved in crime from those who are merely “at-risk” of delinquency. For young and first-time offenders, these would include things like family communication and conflict resolution, relationships with pro-social adults and peers, school success, and work-related skills and opportunities. Ideally, services for young offenders should be customized for the particular strengths and challenges of each individual offender.
But, I’ve heard researchers say that involving young and low-risk offenders in the juvenile justice system is harmful. Is that wrong?
The people saying that are probably thinking of the justice system as the “deep end” of the system, or the residential component. If their definition of juvenile justice is secure correctional institutions, then I would agree with them–absolutely. But, the total juvenile justice system includes all types of efforts to help young people to stay out of trouble. For the youngest and lowest-risk offenders, the justice system’s role should be secondary and involve coordinating and supporting the efforts of community-based groups and partners from schools and social services. The system should also avoid engaging young people in a formal way for as long as possible, but this doesn’t mean that the juvenile justice system should turn its back on prevention and early intervention. It just needs to do these things with a light touch, by working creatively and in partnership with other systems, especially community-based programs and neighborhoods.
Can juvenile justice agencies really do that– provide such a wide range of services?
This is actually the essence of juvenile justice. It was designed to provide an “individualized” response to each young person charged with a crime. The shorthand phrase used by experts is that interventions in the juvenile system should be designed to fit the offender rather than the offense. The criminal (or adult) system is designed to provide a proportionate response for each offense. In other words, cases involving similar offenses are expected to result in similar sentences and punishments. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to identify and address the unique factors behind each individual’s behavior. It is supposed to be flexible in how it responds to youth and creative in the interventions it uses. If a juvenile justice system relies largely on detention and correctional placements, and if the restrictiveness of the response is gauged precisely according to the severity of a youth’s most recent offense, then the system doesn’t deserve the label juvenile justice.
Is that how juvenile justice actually works now?
Yes and No. The juvenile system is still more individualized than the adult system, but both systems have become more like one another in recent decades. The adult criminal system has embraced the individualized treatment approach traditionally associated with the juvenile justice system (e.g., drug treatment courts). The juvenile system, on the other hand, has become more offense oriented. It is far more common than was true 50 years ago for juvenile justice officials to impose more severe sanctions on youth charged with more serious offenses.
Why? What happened 50 years ago?
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an important juvenile law case known as In re Gault. The case was prompted by the growing concern that juvenile courts were not sufficiently constrained by Constitutional principles. When an Arizona judge actually incarcerated a teenager for making prank phone calls, the young man’s attorneys appealed and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. The Gault case established new ground rules for juvenile courts, requiring basic due process rights for accused juveniles, including the right to legal representation. Since then, a series of other Constitutional challenges resulted in cases that further expanded juvenile due process rights, leading the juvenile justice system to be more and more like the adult system.
But, that’s a good thing, right?
Well, it was definitely a good thing to introduce greater fairness into juvenile justice decision making. Once juvenile courts were expected to maintain fairness, however, policymakers needed some way to assess their fairness–some sort of yardstick that could be used to measure the handling of one case against another. Over time, the idea of fairness inevitably became a question of proportionate punishment. As long as youth with similar offenses and similar past records are treated similarly, the process is accepted as fair. But, this approach accelerated the procedural convergence of juvenile and adult justice. So, today you might hear liberal advocates say that certain types of offenders should not be placed in secure facilities because their past behavior doesn’t warrant that kind of intervention, based on the severity of their offenses. Ironically, this type of thinking is more like criminal law than juvenile law. By assessing fairness according to the balance between offense severity and the scale of intervention, liberal advocates actually help to hasten the “criminalization” of juvenile law.
Why is that bad?
Because as juvenile courts started to resemble criminal courts and to use the language and symbols of criminal courts, policymakers and the general public reasonably started to think that–like the adult system–the main function of the juvenile justice system is to deliver punishments in proportion to each offender’s crimes. Once that became the basis for assessing its effectiveness, the juvenile system seemed inherently inferior to the adult system. Law-and-order conservative politicians started to criticize the juvenile justice system as too lenient, and they campaigned on stories about serious offenses going unpunished because the criminal was under age. Yet, the same conservatives always liked the old-school, traditional juvenile court model where the judge enjoyed broad discretion. At the same time, it is the save-the-children liberal politicians who defend juvenile justice by clinging to the memory of Jane Addams and the Progressive-Era reformers who started the juvenile court movement of the early 1900s. These same liberal advocates fear the uncontrolled discretion of the traditional model because it allows for excessive and arbitrary uses of punishment. So, they favor a little criminalization. It can be hard to keep the players straight in juvenile justice politics and important reforms often get bogged down in political debates.
I keep reading that states have made great progress in reform. Have they?
There are several possible ways to think about juvenile justice reform, depending on which parts of the system are being reformed and whose interests are used to define the goals of reform. When police officers and prosecutors talk about reforming juvenile justice, they might mean fewer crimes going unpunished and more youth receiving serious sanctions that are actually effective. Defense attorneys might see reform as better prevention and less arbitrary uses of punishment. In most state legislative debates today, the word reform usually means changing the way we use secure confinement, either detention (pre-court) or correctional placements (following the court process). Reforming these components of juvenile justice implies controlling the over-utilization of placement through expanded use of community alternatives
Isn’t the use of incarceration down?
Sure, the use of secure confinement is down compared with 15 or 20 years ago, but it’s not accurate to call all of that change “reform,” as if we set out to change policies and programs and now we can take credit for succeeding. Juvenile crime, especially juvenile violence, is way down all over the country. The falling rate of serious crime has reduced the demand for secure correctional space. This is a terrific development, and states are responding by reconsidering their need for large, juvenile correctional institutions. It’s up to each state, of course, to decide how to respond, and some states are moving more quickly than others to reconfigure their systems. But, without the falling crime rate, and without the budget crunch facing state and local governments throughout the nation, I seriously doubt that we would be seeing these dramatic declines in the use of secure bed space for young offenders. So, I would hesitate to call these recent developments “reform.”
From Violent Youth Arrests Continue to Fall Nationwide. John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
If that’s not reform, then what is?
I would say that reform is any intentional and sustained change in policy, practice and structure that improves the cost-effectiveness of the system AND improves outcomes for youth, families, and communities. This doesn’t necessarily mean reducing incarceration, but it often does. It could also mean improving the conditions of confinement and ensuring the safety of juveniles in placement. Other common reform topics might relate to the effectiveness of community programs, the provision of legal representation for youth, and disproportionate minority contact (or, DMC). In recent years, some reformers have focused on data systems as well, seeking to improve the use of research in decision-making and in the evaluation of juvenile justice programs.
What? There is so much research going on now. Aren’t we already “data driven?”
There is more research than there used to be, but we still have a long way to go. Keep in mind that you can group juvenile justice research into essentially one of three kinds: (1) criminological research; (2) justice system research; and (3) intervention research. The first kind, criminological, is about who commits crime and why, where it occurs and when, and how these things have changed over time. There has been a steady stream of these sorts of studies but applying their findings is difficult and it can take years for research findings to be translated into action. The second type of research, on justice systems, is about the identification and processing of offenders. This research allows us to track the incidence of crime over time and to measure conviction rates, the changing use of prisons and probation, etc. This research is also growing, but the diversity of system structures and nomenclature makes it challenging to draw conclusions about general trends, beyond the experiences of one city or state. The third area, intervention research, has been very active in the past 10 to 20 years. But, we are only just getting started, especially in interventions for young offenders.
“Just getting started?” Don’t we have all sorts of evidence-based programs now?
Ah yes: this is an important topic. It is true that we have some programs now that merit the term “evidence-based.” But, there are still very few. This is not because there are only a few good ideas out there. It is because the infrastructure for developing and testing program effectiveness is still relatively meager. We just don’t test that many programs with the rigorous methods needed to pronounce them truly effective. We are not close to being done with the job of developing, testing, and refining effective programs, and we are a long way from having a full and balanced menu of juvenile justice interventions.
[ Watch a video on this point. ]
But, you’re just saying “we need more research.” All researchers say that. How will we know when we’ve done enough?
Not just “more” research, but a specific type of research, or rather, a specific type of research agenda. Juvenile justice research today is not focused on the need to build a solid and varied juvenile justice system. Instead, we pursue duplicate studies of the most celebrated program models or the most recent public safety crisis. Research on juvenile justice programs is not pursued by impartial investigators on a quest for truth and justice; it is conducted by people in heated competition for grant dollars and publications. Evaluation research is a competitive field, which may be fine for motivating researchers, but not so fine for setting the research agenda. The research market is over-stimulated in some areas and basically nonexistent in others. Our current mechanisms for sponsoring evaluation research are not meeting our needs for intelligence. A research agenda targeted on overall system effectiveness would identify the most pressing needs for evidence and then build that evidence with intention, greater efficiency, and less redundancy. To accomplish this, researchers need to work with partners — community agencies, neighborhood leaders, youth themselves, and the families of youth involved in the justice system. The juvenile justice system will be more successful if it is informed by research findings, of course, and researchers should have a lot of input into the research agenda, but researchers cannot be the only source of guidance for the design of effective program models. We need to create ways for all of us to work together.