The Juvenile Justice Response to Violence

Jeffrey A. Butts and Jason Szkola


Rates of interpersonal violence are consistently and disproportionately higher among young people. In the United States, public officials expect the justice system to respond to violence in ways that reduce the severity and likelihood of future violence. The juvenile justice system is responsible for intervening to prevent and reduce violence among young people. This chapter reviews the scale and significance of youth violence in the United States and the most viable approaches for reducing and preventing violence. Policies and practices to address violence involving youth are continuously evolving, and the chapter highlights the effectiveness of several prominent examples of youth interventions, including programs championed by the public health sector, law enforcement, and social services.

Butts, Jeffrey A. and Jason Szkola (2021). The Juvenile Justice Response to Violence. In Geffner et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan. Springer Reference.


Beginning with the founding of the first juvenile court in Chicago, Illinois in 1899, juvenile justice systems in the United States were intended to be different from criminal justice systems. Juvenile courts emphasized individualized and developmentally sensitive approaches to intervening with young lawbreakers. Ideally, the response to each case addressed the unique circumstances of the offender rather than simply matching sentences to the severity of offenses. The mission of the juvenile justice system was to investigate the wide range of individual, family, and community factors that caused youths to go astray and then to provide a package of sanctions and services that might put them back on the right track. Despite several decades of criticism as well as politically and racially motivated attacks, this is still the mission and inherent value of the juvenile justice system (Feld, 2017).

Every society must find ways to reduce and prevent interpersonal violence. Strategies vary from the broadest efforts to ensure primary prevention and social justice to targeted and even punitive measures that leverage State authority and the mechanisms of criminal deterrence. The United States pursues both approaches simultaneously, with one or the other dominating depending on the political climate. The rate of interpersonal violence fluctuates over time, sharply increasing through the 1980s and 1990s, for example, and then falling throughout much of the first two decades of the 21st Century. Even during periods of relatively low violence, the incidence of violent behavior by and among young people is a prominent issue. Policymakers and communities always need effective methods of addressing violent acts by youth.

The Scale of Youth Violence

Violence is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, particularly among teenagers and young adults. For people between the ages of 15 and 24, homicide is the third leading cause of death, behind suicide and “unintentional injuries” such as traffic accidents (CDC, 2017). Rates of interpersonal violence are especially high among young males. According to national data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), youth under 18 years of age in the United States typically account for 10 percent of all arrests for the four offenses included in the FBI’s Violent Crime Index (murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery). In 2017, more than four in five (81%) under-age-18 arrests for these violent crime offenses involved male suspects (FBI 2018, Table 33).

In the United States and many other many countries around the world, violent crime rates are far lower than their most recent peak in the 1990s. According to national estimates calculated with FBI data, police agencies across the United States made 52,000 under-age-18 violent crime arrests in 2017, down from 75,000 arrests in 2010, and as many as 150,000 per year in the mid-1990s. Nearly all violent crime arrests (about 9 in 10) involve suspects between the ages of 13 and 49, while four in ten arrests involve either youth ages 13 to 17 or young adults ages 18 to 24. In each age group, the violent crime rate is much lower than it was two decades ago (Figure 1).

When measured in per capita terms, or the number of violent crime arrests controlling for the size of the population, the effect of the crime decline is clear. In 1994, the violent crime arrest rate for 13-17-year-olds was approximately 750 per 100,000. By 2017, the 13-17-year-old rate had declined 69 percent to about 230 per 100,000. All four offenses in the FBI’s Violent Crime Index exhibited steep declines beginning in the 1990s. In 1994, police agencies nationwide reported about 20 murder arrests involving suspects ages 13 to 17 for every 100,000 youth of that age. The murder arrest rate for 13-17-year-olds then dropped 78 percent to 4.3 per 100,000 in 2017. Of course, the two highest-volume offenses in the violent crime category—i.e. robbery and aggravated assault—always dominate the overall trend in youth violence. In 2017, these two offenses together accounted for 91 percent of all age 13-17 arrests for violent index crimes. Between 1994 and 2017, the 13-17-year-old arrest rates for robbery and aggravated assault plummeted 68 and 70 percent, respectively.

The Juvenile Court’s Role in Violence Prevention

Young people who violate criminal laws before achieving the legal age of criminal responsibility are “juveniles” in American legal parlance. Illegal acts by young people meeting the juvenile age criteria (usually under age 17 or 18 depending on state law) fall under the original (beginning) jurisdiction of a juvenile or family court rather than the criminal (or adult) court. When arrested, the legal system does not accuse juveniles of “crimes” in a technical sense because the criminal code does not apply to them. Instead, prosecutors accuse juveniles of committing “acts of delinquency.” The laws and procedures governing the legal response to such acts are the “delinquency code” or “family law.” An 18-year-old who steals something of value commits the crime of theft, but a 15-year-old stealing the same item commits an “act of delinquency” akin to theft.

The systems of juvenile law implemented across the United States were founded on the premise that, due to their immaturity, young people accused of crimes should be handled differently than adults. Ideally, juvenile courts are more responsive than criminal courts to the social and developmental characteristics of children and youth, and the services and sanctions imposed by juvenile courts do more than simply punish wrongdoing. They address the causes of each youth’s misbehavior and restore the youth to full and responsible membership in his or her family and the larger community. Some critics, however, doubt whether this mission is appropriate in all cases—especially youth charged with acts of violence (Tracy and Kempf-Leonard, 1999).

Critics often believe (erroneously) that lawmakers invented the juvenile court system to “go easy” on young criminals. The actual reasons are more complicated. The 19th and early-20th Century activists who built North America’s systems of juvenile law were just as interested in crime control as in youth well-being and social reform (Platt, 1977; Rothman, 1980). Certainly, some early advocates of juvenile courts wanted to save the growing number of poor and homeless children from the dangerous streets of America’s 19th Century cities. Others, however, saw juvenile courts as an opportunity to mitigate the legal obstacles that prevented the criminal courts of the 1800s from dealing effectively and harshly with young lawbreakers.

Before the emergence of juvenile courts, young people charged with crimes appeared for trial in criminal courts next to adult defendants. Judges and jurors were frequently struck by their child-like appearance relative to other defendants in court and often found them innocent or simply released them. When a youth appeared especially immature, jurors seemed to prefer an outright acquittal rather than risking a criminal conviction that could condemn a young person to prison (Mennel, 1973). After many years of such acquittals, prosecutors and law enforcement officials pressed for a separate court process that viewed the illegal behaviors of young offenders on their own terms (Schlossman, 1977).

The national movement to create juvenile courts began when Illinois enacted the state’s Juvenile Court Act of 1899. Other states were also experimenting with new legal processes for dealing with the crimes of young people, but Illinois was the first to establish a wholly distinct and separate court system with original jurisdiction over youth. The motivations of the Illinois lawmakers were not altruistic. It was telling that legislators decided to establish a juvenile court system after a State Supreme Court ruling prohibited the institutionalization of children for non-criminal behavior (People v. Turner, 55 Ill. 280, 1870). Before 1870, public officials could confine poor children and misbehaving youth in institutions without the delay and bother of law and due process. During the 1870s and 1880s, they were frustrated by the criminal court process and welcomed the idea of a “quasi-civil,” non-criminal juvenile court that could place young people in institutions with the goal of helping rather than punishing them. Using their new juvenile courts, Illinois officials were able to resume the practice of institutionalizing children under an entirely different legal authority.

Other states embraced the concept. All but two states established juvenile courts between 1899 and 1925 (Mennel, 1973). By defining their legal proceedings as non-criminal, lawmakers avoided burdening the new juvenile courts with the Constitutional due process protections guaranteed to defendants in criminal courts. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the 1960s (Kent v. United States 1966, 383 U.S. 541; In re Gault 1967, 387 U.S. 1), juvenile courts were not even required to provide defense attorneys, hear appeals, or provide formal procedures. Lawmakers endorsed the lower standard of due process because the announced purpose of the juvenile court was to guide young people away from future trouble rather than punishing them for previous acts. Even when their efforts at guidance included confinement, the official goal of youth incarceration was correction rather than deterrence.

Critics sometimes characterize the difference between juvenile and criminal courts as “rehabilitation” versus “punishment.” In doing so, they may seem to imply juvenile courts are “soft on crime” by design and should only handle less serious matters. This view, however, is ahistorical and accepts the political rhetoric of reformers as the legal and practical underpinnings of the youth justice system. Serious offenses have always been a significant part of the juvenile court’s workload (Rothman, 1980). In 2017, the eight offenses included in the FBI’s Serious Crime Index represented 27 percent of all juvenile arrests. During the violent-crime peak of the 1990s, the same Index offenses accounted for 35 to 38 percent of all juvenile arrests. Yet, in 1960, long before the violent crime scare of the 1990s, the eight offenses in the Crime Index accounted for 40 percent of juvenile arrests (FBI, 1960).

Juvenile Justice Response to Youth Violence

Despite the progress suggested by falling rates of violent crime, interpersonal violence continues to be a serious problem in the United States, and reducing violence among young people is always a focus of justice policy and practice. Strategies to reduce youth violence range from basic prevention efforts affecting entire populations, to community-based interventions with justice-involved young people, and post-incarceration programs for youth released from confinement.

Policymakers and the public ask the legal system to respond to instances of interpersonal violence whenever basic, preventive measures prove to be inadequate. The legal process begins when a law enforcement agency receives a report of violence or when police officers observe violence directly. If an arrest occurs following the investigation of a crime, the matter may be referred for prosecution and court processing under criminal or juvenile jurisdiction, depending on the age of the arrestee(s) and the particular offenses involved.

The legal process for handling arrested youth varies from state to state and even among local jurisdictions within the same state, but some basic steps are common in all systems (Figure 2). In some communities, nearly all juvenile matters end up in court. In other areas, the court is involved in only some cases brought by police. In all juvenile justice systems, however, the legal process begins with a review (or screening) of each case before referring the matter for prosecution. Case screening is usually the responsibility of an executive branch agency, prosecutors, or intake workers under the supervision of the judiciary.

The outcome of the screening and review process determines whether a matter is handled informally (i.e., diverted) or formally (i.e., charged/petitioned). According to the U.S. Department of Justice, informal procedures resolve about 40 percent of juvenile delinquency referrals nationwide (OJJDP, 2018). Youth handled informally may be referred to diversion programs as part of a voluntary agreement in which youth participate in services and sanctions in lieu of formal processing.

In delinquency matters involving formal charges, cases proceed through a series of hearings in a juvenile or family court. In some states, a preliminary hearing allows prosecutors to file formal petitions alleging specific charges. Following the charging and petitioning decisions, the legal process focuses on establishing whether the facts justify formal adjudication (i.e., analogous to a guilty verdict). During adjudication hearings, a juvenile court judge or another hearing officer (e.g., referee) considers the evidence and determines whether the case meets the legal standard required for adjudication. Nationally, in recent years, more than half of all petitioned delinquency cases resulted in formal adjudication.

If the court proceeding does not result in adjudication (similar to acquittal), the petition might be dismissed and the matter could be considered closed. Even without adjudication, however, a case could be “continued” in contemplation of dismissal. In such a proceeding, the court may ask the youth to comply voluntarily with a program of alternative sanctions, such as paying restitution or attending drug counseling. The charges would be pending, and then possibly dismissed after the youth completed the services and sanctions suggested by the court. National juvenile court statistics suggest that more than 40 percent of non-adjudicated delinquency cases involve at least some type of informal services and sanctions (OJJDP, 2018).

When the court enters an order of adjudication, a “disposition” hearing usually follows (sometimes in the same court session). During disposition proceedings, the court may impose sanctions and services backed by judicial order (analogous to sentencing). A judge or court officer determines the most appropriate package of services and sanctions for each case based on the facts presented during earlier court appearances. Options include commitment to a juvenile confinement facility, placement in a group home or other residential setting, probation (either regular or intensive), referral to drug treatment, mental health services, community service, the payment of fines and restitution, and perhaps a wide variety of other choices depending on the level of program resources available in that community. Theoretically, juvenile court dispositions protect the public safety while also addressing the individual needs and characteristics of each youth.

As juvenile crime in general declined across the United States after the 1990s, the number of court cases involving youth violence dropped as well, although not quite as much relative to the previous peak years (Figure 3). The national case rate for all delinquency matters fell 58 percent between 1996 and 2016, from 64 to 27 cases per 1,000 juveniles in the U.S. population. Delinquency cases involving a property charge as the most serious offense dipped 71 percent, while cases involving person charges (i.e. violent actions) fell 45 percent. As a result, the number of cases involving offenses against persons represented a larger proportion of the total juvenile court caseload in 2016 than in previous years. In 2016, cases involving person offenses accounted for 28 percent of adjudicated delinquency cases nationwide, compared with 21 percent in 1996 (Figure 4). The changing offense profile of juvenile court caseloads may have added urgency to a question that long plagued juvenile courts—do cases of youth violence even belong in juvenile courts?

Effective Responses to Youth Violence

The juvenile justice system was always intended to combat juvenile crime—even serious and violent juvenile crime—using intervention strategies that are more flexible and more proactive than the simple deterrence-and-retribution approach sometimes exhibited by criminal courts. This is still the primary mission of the juvenile justice system. In recent decades, changes in law and policy may have increased the legal formality and due process orientation of juvenile courts, but the essential qualities that made juvenile justice an effective addition to the nation’s legal system remain. In fact, the programs and intervention resources available to the juvenile justice system often out-perform those of the criminal (adult) system.

The interventions provided after the court process are the key to effectiveness in the juvenile justice system. The law enforcement and court processing stages that precede intervention are not, by themselves, expected to improve public safety substantially or to reduce the incidence of future violence. The effectiveness of juvenile justice derives from the speed, consistency, and behavioral impact of the treatment and supervision programs arranged by the court. In fact, for most acts of delinquency, contact with the justice system alone may actually increase the probability of future crime (Wiley and Esbensen, 2016).

Throughout the years following the violent crime peak of the 1990s, juvenile justice systems have been collaborating with researchers and practitioners to develop and test interventions for youth referred to juvenile courts by law enforcement agencies. Some of these efforts have resulted in promising and even proven program models, including some innovations that are capable of preventing and reducing youth violence. To support effective strategies for preventing interpersonal violence, juvenile justice systems across the United States may want to consider these approaches.

Public Health Approach: Changing Social Norms with Credible Messengers

Cure Violence addresses youth violence by working to change the culture of neighborhoods to better utilize the informal social norms that can stop violence before it occurs. The Cure Violence approach targets two separate areas: high-risk individuals and the social norms that sustain interpersonal violence in the community. Cure Violence programs deploy three strategies: 1) detecting and interrupting social situations with a high potential for violence; 2) identifying residents involved in violence and working with them to change their life circumstances to reduce violent behaviors; and, 3) changing the community’s social norms regarding violence with public education campaigns and engagement with community leaders and residents (Cure Violence, 2017).

Cure Violence programs recruit staff from the communities they serve. They try to find residents who can be “credible messengers,” or individuals from the same neighborhoods as program participants (clients), who share similar lived experiences, and who have had success at turning their lives around and avoiding crime and violence. The most effective credible messengers have knowledge of local street culture and the local credibility to navigate the social circles where the most likely perpetuators of violence reside (Skogan et al., 2009). With an inside track to the most at-risk groups and individuals, and the knowledge and social skills to interact with them, credible messengers bring a unique asset to Cure Violence programs that other violence-reduction strategies can never match. They know the key individuals involved in violence and likely have relationships with them. This allows them to implement the first two elements of the program more effectively than traditional social service workers ever could.

The evidence base for Cure Violence is growing, with several quasi-experimental evaluations performed to date. Existing evidence is mixed. Some programs appear to be successful while others are less successful (Butts et al., 2015). Chicago’s CeaseFire program was the first Cure Violence program to undergo a rigorous evaluation. Using sixteen years of data on shootings and homicides, the evaluation compared several neighborhoods served by the program (catchments) with matched comparison sites. The analysis suggested the Cure Violence approach was successful, with decreases in actual and attempted shootings ranging from 17 to 24 percent (Skogan et al., 2009). A subsequent analysis, however, introduced additional data from local hospitals and found different results. The study indicated the program could have worked in some locations but not in others (Papachristos, 2011).

Baltimore, Maryland implemented the Cure Violence approach under the name “Safe Streets.” That effort underwent a rigorous evaluation conducted by John Hopkins University, also based on a quasi-experimental design that compared several Cure Violence sites with a set of matched comparison areas. Again, researchers found mixed results, with some sites performing well and others not so well (Webster et al., 2012). One location showed a reduction in both homicides and nonfatal shootings. A second site had significant reductions in homicides, but an increase in nonfatal shootings, while a third site revealed no effects on homicide, but at least some reduction in nonfatal shootings (Webster et al., 2012).

The Baltimore researchers also conducted a thorough process evaluation, noting that the uptick in nonfatal shootings appeared to coincide with a period when program staff were responding to gang activity in a neighboring area (Webster et al., 2012). Informally, researchers acknowledged the Baltimore model could have suffered from implementation issues due to ineffective or inconsistent staffing, and this could have affected the results.

The Baltimore study also measured residents’ attitudes towards gun violence using a community survey. Survey results were only available from one Cure Violence site because another site closed operations during the study. In that one site, however, the survey results indicated that attitudes towards gun violence remained relatively unchanged in the intervention site while residents of the matched comparison site (without a Cure Violence program) reported an increased likelihood of using gun violence to settle conflicts (Webster et al., 2012). This was considered at least promising evidence of a program effect on social attitudes.

New York City operates more than a dozen Cure Violence program sites under the name “Crisis Management System,” an initiative pairing Cure Violence strategies with additional social services and supports. Several of those programs have participated in evaluations. A 2013 evaluation used a quasi-experimental design like the Chicago and Baltimore studies and found that intervention areas experienced non-significant declines in gun violence while comparison areas saw increases in violence (Picard-Fritsche and Cerniglia, 2013). A community survey was included in this study as well, but the survey instrument did not incorporate a sufficiently robust measure of attitudes towards gun violence. The survey asked about whether residents felt justified in carrying a firearm and found no change in attitudes regarding safety or the need to carry a firearm (Picard-Fritsche and Cerniglia, 2013).

A 2017 evaluation in New York City also relied on a quasi-experimental design, comparing outcomes in two neighborhoods with Cure Violence programs and two statistically matched comparison areas without programs. The comparison areas were as similar as possible to the program areas in resident demographics and crime rates. The results showed that gun violence declined more consistently in the two program neighborhoods (Delgado et al., 2017). Specifically, the study found that one program site experienced a 37 percent decline in gun injuries (measured with data about hospital and ER patients treated for gun injuries) and a 63 percent drop in shooting victimizations (police reports of someone hit by gunfire). The second site saw a 50 percent decline in gun injuries but no significant changes in shooting victimizations. This study used a community survey as well and the results indicated stronger reductions in support for violence expressed by young men (ages 18-30) living in neighborhoods served by Cure Violence (Delgado et al., 2017).

Two other attempts to evaluate the Cure Violence approach were less successful. Phoenix, Arizona attempted to implement the Cure Violence approach under the name “Operation TRUCE.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania tried to follow the Cure Violence model in its program “One Vision One Life.” Neither of the cities was particularly successful and evaluation results were mixed at best (Fox et al., 2012; Wilson and Chermak, 2011). The Pittsburgh program was actually associated with increases in violence in some of the neighborhoods studied, and it turned out the program failed to follow the Cure Violence model. City officials actually implemented a mixed approach, only partly inspired by Cure Violence. The police were heavily involved with the program at some point and the program did not employ full-time violence interrupters as suggested by the Cure Violence model (Butts et al., 2015). Even when staff reported successful conflict mediations, the outreach workers did not appear to be working with conflicts likely to result in violence and retaliation. Researchers reported that only two percent of the mediations involved conflicts with a substantial risk of retaliation (Wilson and Chermak, 2011). This made it impossible to consider the program as implemented with fidelity.

Other Models

Other violence reduction programs incorporate a public health approach and a reliance on credible messengers to reset social norms. One well-known initiative is the Arches program supported by the New York City Department of Probation. Arches originated from the NYC Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) in 2012. The program was later adopted by the NYC Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety in the form of the NextSTEPS program and in Washington, D.C. as part of that city’s Credible Messenger Initiative.

The Arches program worked with probation youth ages 16 to 24. The program used a group mentoring approach supported by an evidenced-based cognitive behavioral therapy and interactive journaling curriculum (Lynch et al., 2018). Participants were encouraged to maintain written journals addressing a range of topics, with a focus on positive youth justice principles. Credible messengers with similar backgrounds and life experience facilitated bi-weekly group sessions and youth received mentoring support. Outside of group mentoring sessions, the credible messengers were available to participants 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Group sessions were familial in nature, with meals served to participants in an effort to build an atmosphere of trust and inclusion. Probation officers referred participants who were required to attend, but the program also provided $800 in stipends as participants reach various program milestones, such as attendance and completion of the curriculum (Lynch et al., 2018). To graduate from the program, participants had to attend at least 48 mentoring sessions and complete four interactive journals.

In 2018, the Urban Institute completed a quasi-experimental evaluation of the Arches program in New York City. The evaluation gauged the impact of the program by addressing two key research issues: 1) the program’s effect on participant recidivism; and, 2) the program’s effect on the social development of participants (Lynch et al., 2018). The study used matched comparison groups and data from the New York City Department of Probation and the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services.

To answer the first question, researchers examined re-arrest and re-conviction data and compared the two matched groups at 12 and 24 months post program completion. While there were no significant differences in total arrest rates or non-felony convictions at either follow-up point, the evaluation found promising indicators when it examined new convictions for felonies. Arches participants were significantly less likely to have new felony convictions at either follow-up point (Lynch et al., 2018). At 12 months post program, 6 percent of the comparison group had a new felony conviction while the same was true for only 2 percent of the treatment group. At 24 months, the difference was 14 percent among the comparison group and 6 percent of among Arches group (Lynch et al., 2018). The results were far from conclusive, but they suggested potential benefits of the credible messenger approach.

To answer the second question, the research team relied on information collected from the Positive Youth Development Inventory Short Form (PYDI-S) and a self-assessment tool provided by an interactive journaling company. Both instruments were administered to participants at two points in time in an effort to measure change. The study results suggested that post-program scores were significantly higher than pre-program scores in both the PYDI-S and the self-assessment tool (Lynch et al., 2018). Again, the research value of the self-assessment tool is unclear, but the study team considered the results promising.

Law Enforcement Approach: Focused Deterrence

The Focused Deterrence approach to violence prevention was largely inspired by the work of city officials and reformers implementing a form of problem-oriented policing in Boston during the 1990s (Braga et al., 2001). The idea behind the focused deterrence approach is simple—the vast majority of people involved in community violence are rational, and they will try to avoid negative experiences whenever possible. When a person involved in violence is made to understand that punishment for violence is highly certain and possibly harsh, they will desist from violent activities (Kennedy, 2011). The idea rests on logic established by centuries of thinking about criminal deterrence. A completely certain sanction can be a greater deterrent than the threat of a severe sanction with a low probability of occurrence (Apel and Nagin, 2011). In the case of focused deterrence, researchers and police officials collaborate to raise the certainty of punishment while communicating with the community residents most likely to be involved in violence and offering them help to embrace non-violent lives. Moreover, when violence originates with groups (i.e., gangs, cliques, crews), the focused deterrence message is delivered to entire groups, often in person. Police and program partners tell group members that any new incident of violence will result in punishment of the entire group and not only the individual(s) involved in the act of violence.

Advocates of focused deterrence believe that perpetrators of violence do not often resort to the use of firearms as their first source of resolving conflict (Kennedy, 2011). They turn to guns because they are scared of violence themselves and they believe that others in their neighborhood have guns, and they do not trust police or government actors to keep them safe. In other words, violence represents a breakdown of the social contract. The idea behind focused deterrence is that by demonstrating its capacity to act against violence, the State helps to restore faith in the public systems that enforce the social contract (Kennedy, 2011). The focused deterrence approach does not improve public safety through specific deterrence (punishing offenders) or general deterrence (convincing the public that punishment is real and unpleasant). It identifies groups and individuals involved in violence and ensures that they receive deterring messages while providing them with the support to avoid circumstances that expose them to violence. Like Cure Violence, the logic behind focused deterrence is simple. Implementing and sustaining the approach, however, if often quite complicated.

The focused deterrence approach involves four core strategies: 1) an intra-agency working group to ensure the justice system’s ability to deliver certain and severe punishments for people involved in violence; 2) a detailed problem analysis to identify the factors and people most responsible for local incidents of violence; 3) “call-in” sessions with community leaders to confront and communicate with individuals and groups causing violence; and 4) rapid law enforcement action against perpetrators of violence and their associates as warranted.

All four parts of the model are important for the success of focused deterrence, but the most difficult task is often the establishment of an effective interagency working group. This group must overcome the loosely coupled nature of the local justice system and facilitate close coordination among multiple agencies to ensure the certainty and severity of punishment for violent acts (Sparrow, 2008). Following the establishment of a working group, the members of the group focus on understanding who, and what, is driving violence. Next, they must identify the individuals and groups driving violence in the community, and then ask them to attend a call-in session. During the call-in, community leaders and public officials persuade those in attendance that violence must stop. If it does not stop, law enforcement will arrest and prosecute them and their entire group of associates with as many charges as possible and with the most severe charges and toughest sentences permitted by law. That strong message, however, should come with offers of help. Officials offer to connect participants with social services, legal help, educational support, and anything else that might help them to desist from violence. Importantly, once participants receive the message, the justice system must be willing to make good on its threats of strong enforcement following any new violence.

The focused deterrence approach has been evaluated more thoroughly and more frequently than other violence reduction strategies in recent years. Researchers tested the original program, Operation CeaseFire in Boston, by measuring changes in youth homicide victimizations, calls for police service involving “shots-fired,” and reported gun assaults. The evaluation involved a comparative analysis using crime data from other major cities and a pre/post comparison within Boston. CeaseFire was associated with significant reductions in all categories (Braga et al., 2001).

Researchers examined another implementation of the focused deterrence approach in Cincinnati, Ohio by monitoring gang-related homicides. The program was called the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), but it was a hybrid model that invested more in social services in an effort to sustain the effects of the program after the initial intervention (Engel, Tillyer, and Corsaro, 2013). Like other approaches, including Cure Violence, the program staff of CIRV hoped social services would help participants adopt legitimate lifestyles and avoid criminal behavior. The services involved, however, relied on the narrow and potentially racially biased dimensions suggested by the “Risk Needs Responsivity” framework and its focus on official recidivism (Campbell et al., 2018). Outreach workers in the program were individuals with similar lived experiences as the participants, but the evaluation revealed that just one in five participants were from groups known by local police to be involved in violence (Engel, Tillyer, and Corsaro, 2013). The results of the evaluation suggested the CIRV program was associated with a 41 percent reduction in violent incidents, but the analysis failed to find a relationship that reduction and the social services component, leading the researchers to note that law enforcement may be the stronger aspect of the model (Engel, Tillyer, and Corsaro, 2013).

Other studies have tested the focused deterrence approach and researchers sometimes examine the entire literature to estimate effects using meta-analysis methods (e.g., Braga and Weisburd, 2012).  The results tend to find consistent, albeit moderate effects on levels of violence when communities implement focused deterrence with fidelity. Unfortunately, some of the strongest effects are found by evaluations using less rigorous designs. Still, most studies report significant decreases in violent crime. In their 2012 analysis, Braga and Weisburd ranked the different categories of programs by their average effect size and found that interventions focused on gangs had the largest average effect size, followed by drug market interventions, and then high-risk individual programs (Braga and Weisburd, 2012). In fact, David Kennedy, one of the most ardent proponents of the focused deterrence approach uses the brand name “Group Violence Intervention” to describe the application of these concepts. The effect of focused deterrence is theoretically attributable to the mechanisms of social cohesion and the interplay between individual actions and group identity.

Social Services Approach: Individualized Therapies and Supports

The most conventional approach to reducing youth violence is to treat the underlying causes of violent behavior at the level of individuals and families. Three distinct and popular models fall into this category: cognitive behavioral therapy and its associated techniques (CBT), Functional Family Therapy (FFT), and the “trauma informed” approach. Interventions following the CBT approach base their work on cognitive theories that find the sources of individual’s behavior in their perceptions and thoughts (American Pyschological Association n.d.). Functional Family Therapy begins with the knowledge that family dynamics play a critical role in shaping the behavior of children and youth. The FFT model seeks to change the ways families interact and to improve relationships among the members of immediate families (Alexander and Robbins, 2011). Trauma informed approaches are based on research showing that previous traumatic incidents affect one’s behavior for years, even entire lifetimes. Efforts to change a youth’s behavior during adolescence must account for the ongoing effects of past trauma (Griffin, Germain, and Wilkerson, 2012). Each of these approaches enjoys the support of a growing body of research.

Cognitive Behavioral Interventions

Cognitive behavioral treatments address a wide array of issues related to the youth behavior and offenses that bring young people into contact with the justice system. Programs following a CBT approach work with youth to change their thoughts and perceptions and to manage their reactions to events in their lives. As youth become more aware of the effects of their thoughts and emotions and the behavioral choices they make each day, they may learn to change their behavior to avoid justice involvement. Treatments in the CBT category are very interactive. Youth are not told what or how to think, but they are encouraged analyze their thought processes in order to be more aware of how they are influenced by their own thoughts. The CBT approach may be the primary intervention for youth, or incorporated as a component of other interventions.

Research findings support the effectiveness of CBT approaches with justice-involved youth. A recent evaluation of the Violence Prevention Program, a CBT-based violence reduction program used in Singapore, showed the program had positive effects on a range of outcomes, including expressions of anger, aggression, and self-control (Qi Zhou et al., 2018). A meta-analysis of 50 CBT programs focused on reducing anger found a strong, mean effect size of .70 (Beck and Fernandez, 1998).

In Chicago, the Becoming a Man (BAM) program relied on CBT techniques to intervene with youth at-risk of violence. The program worked with participants to change the way they reacted to stressful situations. The emphasis of the curriculum delivered by BAM staff was on staying calm in situations that could lead to anger. Researchers used a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in neighborhood schools with high rates of violence and the study sample consisted of nearly 75 percent males (Heller et al., 2015). The program appeared to be effective, demonstrating reductions of 45-50 percent in violent crime arrests among the treatment group (Heller et al., 2015).

Functional Family Therapy

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a model short-term intervention that research suggests is effective for youth and families receiving treatment protocols of 12 to 30 hours, depending on the severity of the case (Mihalic et al., 2004). The intervention may be divided into three parts: 1) an initial engagement phase that motivates a family to participate; 2) a behavior change plan that outlines short- and long-term behavioral changes for the youth and his or her family; and, 3) efforts to build on a family’s success and to sustain their ability to address problem areas and take advantage of available supports and resources (Mihalic et al., 2004, Alexander and Robbins, 2011). The entire process has been evaluated with demonstrated success (Alexander and Robbins, 2011).

Trauma Informed Practice

Trauma informed practices in youth justice are increasingly popular as it is clear that up to 90 percent of justice-involved youth were exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lives (Dierkhising et al., 2013). Traumas may be related to violent incidents, deaths, family disruption, or various other adverse experiences such as natural disasters (Dierkhising et al., 2013). Research suggests that an individual’s prior exposure to violence is one of the strongest factors that influences their own violent behavior, and both represent a form of trauma (Gorman-Smith and Tolan, 1998; Webster, Gainer, and Champion, 1993). An individual’s environment and social context contributes to their probability of being exposed to violence and anyone exposed to violence faces a greater chance of subsequent participation in violence (Nofziger and Kurtz, 2005; Halliday-Boykins and Graham, 2001).

The core principle of trauma informed practice could be summarized as follows: if the goal is to help someone, focus on what they have been through and not on what is wrong with them. The number of treatment models and interventions using trauma informed approaches is growing, but researchers are only now beginning to catch up.  Missouri’s Division of Youth Services, for example, includes trauma informed strategies in their well-known system based on programs that are small, close to home, with fully integrated treatment approaches, educational supports, and sustained engagement with families and communities (Missouri Division of Youth Services, 2018). This approach has led some to assert that these methods lead to lower recidivism rates (Mendel, 2010). While research has not yet clarified how a trauma informed approach improves the effectiveness of youth justice, the area warrants replication and further study.


Juvenile courts and youth justice systems respond to a wide array of illegal behaviors by young people, including violent offenses. Despite the claims of critics arguing that juvenile justice systems are an inappropriate venue for handling violent offenses, sanctions and services for youth involved in violence have always been a core component of American juvenile justice.  Policies and programs in juvenile justice are based on the knowledge that adolescents are developing and malleable. Intervention strategies based only on incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence are unlikely to have long-term effects on youth behavior. Such approaches could actually make young people more likely to engage in crime by surrounding them with anti-social peers at a developmental period when youth are more likely to respond to influence and guidance from their peers than from adults or authority figures.

The program models reviewed in this chapter share a common goal: to change behavior. All the approaches and models recognize that the behavior of youth during adolescence is likely to affect their future, but does not necessarily have to define them as people. Effective interventions for justice-involved youth fall into two broad categories: 1) preventive efforts designed to stop the general youth population from becoming involved in the justice system; and 2) programs that work with youth after initial system involvement and that attempt to facilitate desistance from deviant and illegal behavior.

Cure Violence and the focused deterrence approach are community-based approaches that could keep youth from involvement in the justice system by relying on credible messengers and community supports to reach participants independently of any contact they may have already had with the justice system. Cure Violence relies on insider knowledge and confidential relationships with participants to spread positive social norms and interrupt ongoing conflicts that could result in violence. Focused deterrence relies on providing service and supports for the most at-risk potential groups and individuals, and works to reform local law enforcement and justice systems to increase the certainty and severity of punishment for those failing to desist.

Cure Violence and focused deterrence could be described as pursuing related, but opposite goals. Focused deterrence relies on youth being rational actors and works to restore their faith in the system of formal social control that can keep them safe by delivering authoritative messages of deterrence from authority figures. Cure Violence works to change youth behavior by leveraging the influence of their peers and members of the same communities who have the credibility to establish trusting, confidential relationships with youth most at risk of involvement in crime and violence. Focused deterrence works on restoring faith in systems of formal social control, while Cure Violence works to change norms in systems of informal social control.

Once a young person is involved with the justice system, the other programs reviewed above have shown the potential to change behavior and to help youth desist from crime. CBT works to make the youth aware of their thinking and its connection to their behavior; FFT works to improve the functioning of the youth’s family system in ways that support desistance; and the trauma informed approach improves the overall effectiveness of interventions by helping justice systems recognize the ways trauma continues to affect youth behavior after the initial event. All three models work on the premise that youth can change and that incapacitation and retribution for past offenses is not a sufficient or affordable solution. Each program recognizes that the youth are at a critical developmental point in their lives and their current behavior is not completely predictive of future outcomes.

Youth, even those who have committed violence, are fundamentally different from adults. Mental health and other medical professionals recognize this, which is why there are specific modalities of therapy and medical professionals that specialize in the treatment of youth. The justice system is no different. It requires a set of specialized practices and procedures designed to recognize that youth are fundamentally different and need to be treated differently. The youth justice system was never designed to “go easy” on youth; it was designed to deliver youth-specific services and sanctions that help youth recover their futures and become prosocial members of society.


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About the Authors

Jeffrey A. Butts is director, and Jason Szkola is senior research associate, with the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.