Juvenile Justice Policy in a Period of Transition

In the Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, author Laurence Steinberg explains that juvenile justice policy is in a transition phase. Downward trends in crime rates have led to an easing up on the “get tough” reform policies of the 1990s and early 2000s. Policymakers and the public are realizing the enormous cost and ineffectiveness of harsh sentencing for adolescents, and as a result, many state and local authorities have shifted toward more moderate policies by increasing funding for treatment programs as opposed to institutional placement.

In his chapter “Prevention and Intervention Programs for Juvenile Offenders,” Peter Greenwood asserts that for every dollar invested in effective delinquency-prevention programs as opposed to juvenile prisons, taxpayers save about seven to ten dollars. Among the most successful evidence-based programs are home-visiting programs, in which specially trained nurses visit first-time mothers to provide them with training in childcare and social skills. Such programs have been shown to reduce child abuse, neglect, and arrest rates for children and mothers. In addition, some school-based dropout prevention programs have been linked to less delinquency and drug use and greater academic success.

Community-based programs have also been shown to effectively reduce delinquency. The most successful of these emphasize family relationships. Participants at a recent forum on the connection between child welfare, foster care, and juvenile justice in New York City note that past programs have often taken at-risk teens far from their families and communities, making care and counseling more difficult. In contrast, community-based programs that move the focus from the individual to the family can provide skills to adults who are already in the best position to influence the adolescent. One evidence-based example is Functional Family Therapy. Targeted toward youth involved in delinquency, substance abuse, and violence, the program focuses on strengthening the family unit, aiming to improve family interactions, problem solving skills, and parenting.

For more discussion on juvenile justice policy, check out related Future of Children blogs. For research highlights on evidence-based programs for improving outcomes among adolescents and young adults, see the Future of Children volumes Transition to Adulthood and America’s High Schools. Also see the Future of Children website: http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/