Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse

Chances are that you or someone you know has been sexually abused. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, writes in the Future of Children that approximately 3% of children are likely victimized in a single year, and 25-40% of women and 8-13% of men report a history of sexual abuse. Many potentially negative consequences can result from this type of abuse; thus, prevention and treatment should be a matter of public policy.

What type of person sexually abuses a child? The answer might not be what you think. Finkelhor explains that only 14% of sexual abuse victims who come to law enforcement attention are victimized by a stranger, while 26% are victimized by a family member and 60% are abused by someone in the family’s social network. And it’s not just adults who perpetrate–about a third of abusers are juveniles. Also, only a small percentage of new offenders have a prior record. Luckily, many abusers are relatively low-risk for re-offending once caught.

Some of these figures might seem frightening to parents who feel a lack of control over their children’s safety. However, parents can use proactive strategies to protect their children, and if abuse happens, it should be reported promptly (regardless of who the perpetrator is) and followed immediately by professional treatment for victims. Having practiced social work with youth offenders and victims and their families, I understand it can sometimes be difficult to take the matter outside the family, but it really is in everyone’s best interest.

Policy makers have tried to alleviate the problem by focusing primarily on offender management (for example, registering sex offenders, conducting background employment checks, controlling where offenders can live, and imposing longer prison sentences) and school-based educational programs (for example, teaching children how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser’s approach, and summon help). Surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest that offender management prevents sexual abuse, despite its popularity. In addition to more research into these practices, Finkelhor recommends using law enforcement resources to catch more undetected offenders and concentrating intensive management efforts on those at highest risk to re-offend. School-based programs, on the other hand, have been shown to achieve some of their goals, but studies are inconclusive about whether these programs actually reduce victimization. For more information on how to prevent child abuse, see the Future of Children issue on Preventing Child Maltreatment.

Reducing the Risk of Parental Incarceration

To reduce children’s exposure to the negative effects of having a parent incarcerated (for example, family financial strain, health and social problems, housing insecurity, etc.), Future of Children authors Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman urged policymakers to limit prison time and provide effective drug treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. In line with this call, Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department would stop perusing mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and promote drug-treatment alternatives to incarceration. The changes, effective immediately, should help to reduce the prison population and the number of children exposed to incarceration.

With about half the current prison population meeting the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, effective drug treatment for prisoners and parolees is a serious concern. As the incarceration rate begins to decline, thousands of men and women will be sent back into their communities, and many will need substance abuse treatment. Western and Wildeman report that prisoner reentry programs have been found to reduce recidivism by connecting ex-prisoners to substance abuse treatment services as well as education and employment opportunities.

Policymakers and practitioners should also focus on early contact with the criminal justice system. Laurie Chassin notes that substance abuse disorders are common among adolescents in the juvenile justice system and underscores the need for effective screening methods so that youth can be redirected away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems as early as possible. She highlights the role of the youth’s social environment and mental health and finds evidence in favor of family-based treatment models.

Limiting prison time, providing effective drug-treatment for offenders and ex-prisoners, and identifying and addressing substance-use disorders early on should help to lower the proportion of children exposed to parental incarceration. For more on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Fragile Families and Juvenile Justice.

Minority Youth and Police Contact

A recent article in The Atlantic points out that US incarceration rates are extremely high compared to those of other nations, especially for black men. But jails and prisons represent just one of many stages in the justice system where racial-ethnic disparity is a major problem, even for youth. Understanding why black and Latino adolescents experience greater risk of contact with the juvenile justice system is a difficult task. Future of Children author Alex Piquero argues that police play an important decision-making role in juvenile justice. Thus, careful examination of a youth’s initial interaction with police may shed some light on the issue of minority contact.

One example of police contact is New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk program. It has been practiced by the New York Police Department for decades, and many contend that it has helped keep guns off the street and lower the city’s homicide rate. Some research shows evidence to support this argument, but the practice has nonetheless been met with heated debate and complaints of racial profiling. Indeed, a recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that more than 86 percent of police stops in 2012 were of blacks or Latinos.

To address the controversy surrounding Stop-and-Frisk, the City Council voted today to increase the oversight of police by establishing a new inspector general position. Yet some fear placing more limits on police will lead to an increase in crime rates. Piquero urges rigorous evaluation of new initiatives to curb disproportionate minority contact, with a focus on the best evidence for what works. Find his evidence-based suggestions in the Future of Children issue on Juvenile Justice.

From Prison to Postsecondary Education

For every three people enrolled in a postsecondary institution, one person is under correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole, or on probation). College has been part of the American Dream for decades, but prisoners and parolees have for the most part been ignored in discussions on improving college enrollment and completion rates.

Most high school students would like to achieve some sort of postsecondary education, but many leave high school unprepared for college work. This may be especially true for young adults involved with the criminal justice system, who are more likely to be from poor, racial-ethnic minority, or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, education levels among the correctional population are much lower than among the general population. Some evidence suggests that increasing educational attainment among offenders may effectively reduce recidivism, but few studies have rigorously examined how postsecondary education affects the correctional population.

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, recently launched by the Vera Institute of Justice, “seeks to demonstrate that access to postsecondary education, combined with supportive reentry services, can increase educational credentials, reduce recidivism, and increase employability and earnings.” The initiative will take place in three states over five years, and evaluations will be conducted by the RAND Corporation. At least one of the states, New Jersey, already has correctional postsecondary education programs in place, including Princeton University’s Prison Teaching Initiative.

The Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education highlights the dramatic changes that are taking place in institutions of higher education and the students who attend them. As policymakers and educators make efforts to increase enrollment and improve program quality and completion, they should not forget the 7 million people under correctional supervision and what access to college for them might mean for their families and the nation as a whole.

To Reduce Delinquency, Prevention is Key

As a New York Times editorial noted recently, although the number of incarcerated juveniles is at a 35-year low, the US continues to lead developed nations in the number of young people it locks up. Incarceration has serious consequences for ex-offenders, including poorer health, lower earnings, and family breakup; thus many states have begun investing in more effective strategies to reduce delinquency. As Peter Greenwood explains in the Future of Children, “The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place.”

The Future of Children says that the best evidence points to early intervention, including home-visiting programs aimed at pregnant teens and their at-risk infants, early education programs for disadvantaged young children, and school-based initiatives to prevent drug use and dropping out. Moreover, community-based programs that focus on the family and improving parenting skills have been shown to effectively deter young offenders from future involvement with the justice system.

In the Washington Post this week, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins urged politicians, educators, community leaders, ministers and parents to teach young people that the decisions they make as they transition to adults will greatly influence their circumstances later in life. He cited research showing that of US adults who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, only about 2 percent live in poverty and about three quarters have joined the middle class. Thus, investing more in prevention than incarceration should more effectively reduce delinquency and improve life outcomes for young adults. See the Future of Children issues on Juvenile Justice, Fragile Families, and School Readiness to learn more about this topic.

Children and the Prison Boom: Finding Solutions

The era of skyrocketing US incarceration rates since the 1970s has been dubbed the “Prison Boom,” and rightfully so. Future of Children authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western report a fivefold rise, from about 100 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 people. A major concern for policymakers and children’s advocates is that many of those incarcerated are parents. Among African American children who grew up during the Prison Boom, one in four had a parent (most often a father) incarcerated at some point during childhood.

As the New York Times wrote recently, families and children with an incarcerated father can face considerable hardship, apart from the challenges associated with the father’s criminality. While identifying a causal relationship between incarceration and various child and family outcomes is difficult, quality research continues to develop in this area. Recent studies find a link to child behavioral problems and school readiness, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness.

There is much discussion about ways to reduce the prison population, from increasing the number of police on the streets, to drug-treatment or faith-based programs. Based on the best research available, the Future of Children’s policy recommendations focus on drug offenders and parole violators. Solutions include intensive community supervision, drug treatment when necessary, and more effective responses to parole violation. The White House highlights one program recommended by Wildeman and Western. Project HOPE in Hawaii significantly reduced drug use and other offenses by administering swift, certain, but very short jail stays to probation violators.

As local, state, and federal leaders seek more effective alternatives to long jail and prison sentences, they should look to quality research to guide policy. See the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families for more information on this topic.

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”)

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Combating Cyberbullying

Lee Hirsch’s new documentary “bully,” portrays the difficulties children often experience when they are tormented by school peers. With the widespread use of social media, that bullying often includes cyberbullying.

The Kaiser Foundation reports that media are among the most influential forces in the lives of young people today, who spend more time with it – 7.5 hours a day, 7 days a week – than with most other activities. In the Future of Children volume Children and Electronic Media, researchers highlight the findings of a 2007 web-based survey of 1,454 adolescents, which found that seventy-two percent of respondents in the study experienced at least one incident of cyberbullying in the previous year.

In their chapter “Online Communication and Adolescent RelationshipsFuture of Children authors Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield summarize other research findings regarding cyberbullying, showing that youth aged 10 to 17 with symptoms of depression are more likely to report having been a victim of online harassment. Those that cyberbully are more likely to report delinquency, substance abuse, and poor parent-child relationships. The authors note that more research is needed to determine the causality of these relationships.

The Children and Electronic Media volume indicates three areas of intervention for regulating and promoting positive social media use for children and youth: families, education, and government. In terms of the family, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield indicate that while more research is needed to determine how much parents know about their children’s use of electronic media, both adolescents and parents agree that youth know more about the internet than their parents do. The authors suggest that parents may be able to influence their children’s media use by monitoring through internet filters and by limiting their time and activity online.

Initiating change through education and government intervention is more complicated. Schools have begun to monitor or restrict access to social media but this is controversial because it may compromise the educational benefits of social media. And although some states such as Arizona and California have taken steps to introduce legislation that aims to reduce cyberbullying, as the Children and Electronic Media volume notes, “First Amend­ment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible.”

The volume continues, however, saying “although the government’s ability to regulate content may be weak, its ability to promote positive programming and media research is not. Government at all levels should fund the creation and evaluation of positive media initiatives such as public service campaigns to reduce risky behaviors and studies about educational programs that explore innovative uses of media.”

The message? When it comes to social media, content matters.

Although it may be difficult to combat cyberbullying through regulation, social media can be used as a tool to promote positive youth behavior. As the Children and Electronic Media volume reveals, media content designed to promote pro-social behavior increases social capacities such as altruism, cooperation, and tolerance of others – a powerful positive tool in efforts to reduce bullying of any kind.

Read more on this topic in the online Future of Children volume Children and Electronic Media. Join the conversation by commenting on this and similar blog posts.

Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Transition to Adulthood

In their chapter Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood, D. Wayne Osgood, E. Michael Foster, and Mark E. Courtney explain that while the transition from adolescence to adulthood is a rocky road for working-class non-college-bound youth, it is even more uncertain for vulnerable populations, such as those involved with the juvenile or criminal justice systems. For these youth, activities are more restricted, making it harder to obtain a college education or develop stable relationships that could increase their chances of success as adults. Among fathers, incarceration has been linked to lower earnings and education, homelessness and material hardship, as well as poorer relationship skills, according to findings from the Fragile Families Study. Effective programs and policies are needed to help protect against these hardships and provide a less troubled transition to adulthood.

One effort to provide support to youth in the criminal justice system is to provide GED and other educational opportunities in correctional facilities. An example of this effort is Princeton University’s Prison Teaching Initiative, which operates in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Mercer County Community College (MCCC) to provide access to MCCC accredited college courses at New Jersey correctional facilities. Faculty, staff, graduate students, and other Princeton affiliates with advanced degrees volunteer to teach courses in several disciplines. Another example is the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, a volunteer-based program in Princeton that recruits and trains students and community members to tutor and teach in nearby correctional facilities.

Osgood, Foster, and Courtney indicate that a major problem adolescents and young adults in vulnerable populations face is that access to services often ends abruptly as they reach adulthood, despite persisting needs. Without continued support, many youth who have been involved with the juvenile or criminal justice systems may return to crime. Thomas Grisso, author of Adolescent Offenders with Mental Disorders, indicates that many youth who have had contact with the juvenile justice system need ongoing mental health treatment, with community and family support. Laurie Chassin, in her chapter, Juvenile Justice and Substance Use points out that among youth who have been successfully treated for substance use disorders, there is a high relapse rate, suggesting a need for aftercare services. While independence is the ultimate goal, the chances of success may be increased with continued support.

While researchers and advocates point to many educational and treatment programs for youth and young adults, more research needs to determine which programs are best for ensuring a successful transition to adulthood and better life outcomes. Join the conversation on offender education and re-entry by commenting on this or other related blog posts. Also, check out the Future of Children website and follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Should Juveniles Receive the Same Punishment as Adults?

An earlier Future of Children blog post underscored a shift in the juvenile justice system toward more moderate policies, including greater emphasis on treatment programs as opposed to incarceration. Another sign of the policy transition, as indicated by Laurence Steinberg in the Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, is the 2005 Supreme Court opinion to eliminate capital punishment for juveniles. In 2010 the court also brought an end to life sentences without parole for juveniles not guilty of homicide.

The recent school shootings in Ohio and subsequent media discourse regarding whether 17 year-old suspect TJ Lane should be tried as an adult have renewed public discussion about appropriate sentencing for juveniles. In some states, life in prison without the possibility of parole is a mandatory sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide, meaning the youth’s background and age are not even taken into account. However, many believe that context is crucial to a fair sentence, especially for young offenders. National Public Radio reports that the Supreme Court hears arguments this week regarding whether it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, even for homicide.

In their chapter Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime, Elizabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg explain that before the shift toward more moderate policy today, there had been a steady increase in homicide rates among juveniles, sparking a “moral panic” catalyzed by the media, which led to reform movements and harsher sentencing. “Through a variety of initiatives, the boundary of childhood has shifted dramatically in a relatively short time, so that youths who are legal minors for every other purpose, are adults when it comes to their criminal conduct.” Today many politicians and the public realize the high economic costs and ineffectiveness of such initiatives. Context, more than punishment, is becoming a more frequented topic in policy discussion.

Drawing on evidence in developmental psychology, Scott and Steinberg argue that adolescents differ from adults in several ways. Teens may be less able than adults to use their capacities for cognitive reasoning because of a lack of experience and less efficiency in processing information. They may be less culpable than adults because they are more vulnerable to external pressures and coercion from peers. Finally, they contend that adolescent character may be relatively unformed.

To add your voice to the discussion on juvenile justice policy, comment on this or other related blog posts. For discussion on policies related to other adolescent behavior, see the Future of Children volumes on the Transition to Adulthood and America’s High Schools. Also, check out the Future of Children website and follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter.