Interview with the International Juvenile Justice Observatory

Which are the main challenges that JJ public policies face today in the US in terms of addressing the avoidance of crime?

The main challenge is that juvenile justice policies are not based on a simple, rational assessment of costs and effectiveness, or even on the basic concept of justice. Policy choices are affected by fear and emotion, as well as political/electoral competition, economic self-interest of governments and service providers, and the enduring battle between social classes as to who defines the origins and solutions to social problems.

Which do you believe are the common or global challenges at transnational or intercontinental level in the prevention of violence and crimes involving young people?

All countries struggle with two competing theories of how to change youth behaviour: 1) by punishing and dominating, or 2) by motivating and engaging.

Which is the main difference in concept, policy or practice between the European and the US JJ systems?

The similarities are becoming more prominent than the differences. In the past, the U.S justice system was one of the most racially-biased systems among advanced democracies. This seems to be less true than it once was – other countries are beginning to catch up.

You have described how some US jurisdictions have adopted systems that are more sustainable than others; can you tell us what makes for a sustainable approach to juvenile justice?

The most important thing is legitimacy. Justice systems are sustainable when the public supports the basic approach to justice and the public receives routine updates of critical performance indicators.

What are the legislative improvements that you would prioritize in the US agenda or which do you consider more urgent?

Better and more timely data. In the U.S., we get one annual report of key crime indicators and that report is published nearly a year after the referent year. In other words, the national report about crime in 2013 was published in the Fall of 2014. This means that the public gets its crime information from local media, news sources, and blogs, and this means that public discourse about crime is distorted by poorly understood information.  

What is your opinion on the establishment of policies and systems that serve young adults up to 23 years old dependent on JJ, do you consider it feasible in some states in your country?

All countries, including the U.S., will eventually have to recognize the obvious truth that adolescence does not end at age 17 or 18, and as long as we continue to agree that adolescents should be treated differently from adults in the justice system, this means that the upper age has to be raised.

On what topics or areas of JJ do you consider it is necessary to generate evidence or where do you believe it is necessary to generate innovation?

From our “Evidence Generation” initiative:

We recommend using evidence-informed programs and practices whenever possible, but it is important for agencies to pursue new and innovative practices that fit their mission, their clientele, and their intervention philosophy. If an agency cannot locate an evidence-based program or practice that fits their mission and their approach, it may not be because the agency is off-target or misinformed. It may be due to bias or lack of vision among the policymakers and funding organizations that control investment in social programs and evaluation research on those programs. Such decisions often reflect the values of the dominant culture and it is difficult for new and innovative practices to break through.

Out of the latest research or policy oriented initiatives, which ones do you consider outstanding?

The most important recent research in the U.S. was Sarah Heller’s evaluation of mentored work placements for youth in Chicago. Her randomized study showed that a positive summer work experience for disadvantaged youth was associated with a 40% decline in violent offending. Importantly, she also tested the work experience intervention in combination with therapeutic supports, and there was no difference. Both groups were 40% less likely to commit subsequent violent offenses. This shows that concrete and developmentally appropriate supports for youth is the key. Justice-involved youth do not all need therapy.

What do you believe has been your biggest contribution or which are you most proud of?

My work on “Positive Youth Justice”

The Positive Youth Justice model suggests that blending the science of adolescent development with the practice principles of positive youth development could serve as an effective framework for designing general interventions for young offenders. The model encourages youth justice systems to focus on protective factors as well as risk factors, strengths as well as problems, and positive outcomes as well as negative outcomes. In general, the PYJ approach focuses on facilitating successful transitions to adulthood for justice-involved youth.

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