Monthly Archives: June 2012

Juvenile Justice Moving into the Twenty First Century

This week, the Supreme Court decided to effectively bar mandatory life terms for juveniles. (The New York Times) The ruling marks a significant point in a long period of transition for juvenile justice policy.

Beginning in the 1980s through the early 1990s, youth crime rates rose in the United States. Some politicians felt that the juvenile system was ineffective and that there was no evidence of rehabilitation in youth offenders. They saw the system as something that worked for the crimes of a milder time, but that with the violent crimes being committed by current youth, they needed more punitive policies. “As the juvenile crime rates – particularly homicide – rose, politicians across the country rushed to enact tough policies through several legislative strategies.” More than 250,000 young offenders were transferred each year into the adult system–getting adult time for adult crime. (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

Discussions around the juvenile justice system, particularly the trying of children as adults and mandatory life sentences continued, with people from both sides of the issue passionate in their stance. Gradually, policies began to change. “In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court eliminated the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was also unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killings.” And this week the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring adolescents convicted of homicide to receive a life sentence are unconstitutional.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features–among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” stated Justice Kagan. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him–and from which he cannot usually extricate himself–no matter how brutal or dysfunctional” (The New York Times)

In their chapter, “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime,” Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg state that “Research in developmental psychology supports the view that several characteristics of adolescence distinguish young offenders from adults in ways that mitigate culpability. These adolescent traits include deficiencies in decision-making ability, greater vulnerability to external coercion, and the relatively unformed nature of adolescent character.”

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and issue editor of the Future of Children’s Juvenile Justice volume states in the New York Times, “About 10 percent of young violent criminals become adult offenders. But no one knows which ones. We tracked about 1,300 young convicted felons, the majority of them violent, over seven years. We interviewed each kid for hours so we knew more about them than any court will ever hope to know, and we saw them every six months. We were unable to predict which ones would be in the 10 percent.”

As the Future of Children’s policy brief on juvenile justice notes, “Both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should therefore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood.”

“Monday’s ruling,” Steinberg said, “along with the earlier ones on juveniles, is clearly a win from the point of view of developmental science.”

“Lawmakers may be ready to approach juvenile justice policy more thoughtfully today than they have in a generation. If so, a large body of recent research that was not available twenty years ago offers insights about adolescence and about young offenders. Using this scientific knowledge to shape the direction of juvenile justice policy will promote both social welfare and fairness.” (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

For more, go to:

Anne-Marie Slaughter on Work and Family Balance

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton and former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, writes about the challenges of work and family balance in a recent piece in the The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.

The article presents several observations, which echo the Future of Children’s Work and Family issue findings:

–The rising shares of women in the workforce and of families headed by single parents have made work-family issues especially prominent and challenging, as more employees face care responsibilities at home and fewer have a stay-at-home spouse to manage them.

–For high-income families, often the problem is too many hours of work; for low-income families, the problem is often too few hours of work, too little control over those hours, and insufficient income. Families in the middle not only face insecurity about their jobs and financial situation, but also have limited resources to meet their families’ needs. Their incomes are too low to purchase high quality care for their dependents, but too high to qualify for help from public programs.

–Workplace flexibility is a promising approach to easing work-family conflict. For employees, it is linked with job engagement, satisfaction, retention, and better health; for employers, with higher productivity.

–School-aged children require care and supervision before and after school and during school vacations. Schools, out-of-care providers, and employers can ease work-family conflicts by taking account of changes in working families. In today’s economic climate, workplace flexibility options may have the most potential for meeting families’ diverse scheduling needs.

As Slaughter urges, “ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

For more on work and family, go to the Future of Children’s issue on Work and Family.

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Speaking with Children about Obesity

The childhood obesity crisis has been in the news for many months now. We know that obese children face certain difficulties with health in adulthood. Heart disease, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep disorders, liver disease, orthopedic complications, and mental health problems are just some of the health complications of carrying excess weight. (Future of Children, Childhood Obesity).

Despite all the public attention and concern, policymakers are uncertain how best to combat childhood obesity. Researchers have identified many possible causes of the obesity epidemic, but the research base on how to prevent obesity is still limited, making it difficult to decide how best to proceed. With state and federal budgets already strained, it is important to develop programs and policies that are effective and can be implemented at reasonable cost. Parents play an important role in these efforts.

In a recent article “Talking to your Kids About Weight Loss,” Chris Iliades, writes that “in a country where 17 percent of all children are obese and another 17 percent are overweight, childhood obesity should be a topic of conversation for families. But according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, how we talk about childhood obesity could be just as important as whether we’re talking about it. According to the study, 36 percent of parents would react to words like “fat” and “obesity” by putting their child on a strict diet and another 35 percent would go off in search of a different doctor — and neither of these reactions are best for a child’s health..”

As the authors of the Future of Children’s Childhood Obesity chapter, “The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity,” caution, “even though childhood obesity experts discourage dieting, parents who feel the need to control a child’s weight commonly encourage dieting. Studies on dieting behaviors consistently report that their parents’ inducement to diet is the most significant factor in causing children to begin dieting. Their parents’ direct verbal encouragement is more influential than the parents’ own dieting behaviors. Many adolescents whose parents urged them to diet report engaging in unhealthful dieting behaviors. Focusing on dieting for weight control may overemphasize the thinness ideal and over time may even lead to an increased risk for obesity. It is important for parents of overweight children to learn about the dangers of dieting and to talk with their child’s doctor or health care provider about ways to promote healthful habits.” (to view the source for this quote, please see page1 75 of this article.)

The authors conclude that “parents play a critical role at home in preventing childhood obesity, with their role changing at different stages of their child’s development. By better understanding their own role in influencing their child’s dietary practices…parents can learn how to create a healthful nutrition environment in their home, provide opportunities for physical activity, discourage sedentary behaviors such as TV viewing, and serve as role models themselves.”

To read more about parents’ role in preventing childhood obesity, please visit the Future of Children website and the journal on Childhood Obesity

Why are Mental Health Disorders in Children Increasing?

In a recent New Jersey Star Ledger article, guest columnist and Future of Children author Neal Halfon writes about the shift in disabilities from physical disorders to mental health disorders.

“The latest issue of Princeton/Brookings, Future of Children adds to the growing number of studies documenting that childhood disability rates are not only unexplainably increasing, but also that the way disabilities manifest is significantly changing,” Halfon writes. “Where the poster child of disability in the 1960’s was on crutches, the new face is a child with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other problems affecting the brain.”

“Growing rates and shifting patterns of childhood disability challenge notions that U.S. children are generally healthy and suggest substantial changes in the risks children encounter. While disabilities are more common in children from lower-income households, a lack of family resources, education, or other forms of social deprivation don’t explain all of what’s going on. Some risk-hunting epidemiologists are considering whether any of the thousands of new chemicals in our environment are to blame,” Halfon continues, “while others are examining the role that toxic stresses may play in jolting developing nervous systems onto an aberrant path.” A recent Future of Children blog post further explores this topic, pulling research from the Children with Disabilities article on the prevention of disability in children.

The Future of Children’s Children with Disabilities volume explores various possible reasons for the shift in disabilities from physical to mental health disorders while emphasizing that regardless of the cause of the disability, “large numbers of children must live with a diagnosed disability, (and) these children merit attention.”

This is particularly true for children with mental health disorders. Both the Delaney and Smith and Stabile and Allin articles in the Children with Disabilities volume highlight the significant lifetime costs of mental health disorders for children. In fact, mental health disorders in childhood generally have larger impacts than childhood physical health problems in terms of adult health, years of schooling, participation in the labor force, marital status, and family income. Identifying the best ways to support these children is clearly important.

To read more about the ways to support children with disabilities’ education and health, go to the Future of Children’s Children with Disabilities volume. You may also be interested in reading about our recent practitioners’ conference, “Working with Children with Disabilities: Tools for Parents and Schools.

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