We actually need young people who are bold, willing to challenge conventional thinking, and to break rules, but we also need them to respect others, to rely on logic rather than force, and to appreciate the corrosive effects of violence and exploitation. In short, our communities need powerful and creative young people who want to improve us and not simply to fight us. These should seem like obvious concepts to anyone working around the youth justice system, but it is often surprisingly difficult to implement them in practice.
Rather than asking “what’s the recidivism rate?” we should ask an entirely different set of questions about justice interventions. Are we really helping people convicted of crimes to form better relationships with their families and their law-abiding friends? Are we helping them to advance their educational goals? Are they more likely to develop the skills and abilities required for stable employment? Are we helping them to respect others and to participate positively in the civic and cultural life of their communities?
No credible study ever located the source of the crime drop in the power of prosecutors to send youth to adult courts and adult prisons. There is just no compelling evidence to suggest that prosecutors may rightfully claim the credit for falling rates of violent youth crime. Not even in Florida.
Despite a sustained effort to study these policies over the last two decades, researchers have not found that increasing prosecutorial power reduces crime, and the practice of putting young people in the adult criminal justice system is not only ineffective, it has many negative side effects.
Researching the effectiveness of social policies is like pointing a flashlight inside a dark room. You can can only see what passes through the beam of light.
All researchers want their studies to have an impact on policy and practice, but few do. It's often the researcher's own fault -- at least in part. Here are some basic strategies for increasing the chances that your research will have an effect.
Adolescence does not end with a single birthday and it lasts well beyond the point of legal adulthood. Our science-blind courts have yet to accept this fact.
If our goal is to mitigate whatever factors are most likely to draw young people into contact with the justice system, the interventions we provide should reflect what we know about adolescents and the conditions facing young people in the United States today.
Equating the deepest end of juvenile justice with “the system” distorts the significance of whatever problems affect the youth in secure care. Young people in secure facilities represent a small proportion of the entire youthful offender population.
Even if we observe a number of instances when state reforms are followed by lower incarceration, we have to test whether the causal hypothesis holds up in the absence of reform? If we lined up all the states according to whether they had enacted meaningful reforms in their juvenile justice systems, would their incarceration trends line up in the same way, with high reform states showing more decline and low reform states showing less? Moreover, does the relationship persist over time and under varying circumstances?