Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

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:

The Dropout Problem and What Can Be Done About It

The Wall Street Journal recently released some staggering statistics: less than 40% of Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma are employed, and those who are employed make about $23,400 on average. Another report by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research indicates that about a third of young men with less than a high school degree have had contact with the criminal justice system. While there is often controversy as to how dropout rates should be measured, the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools points out that even the most optimistic figures suggest that too many students are leaving school early.

Authors John H. Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom in their chapter on “Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery” point out that while much is known about the characteristics of students who do not complete high school, much less is known about the reasons why. A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors including student characteristics such as poor school performance and engagement, school characteristics related to school resources and student-teacher ratios, and family characteristics such as parent socioeconomic status and family structure.

Due to the wide range of factors associated with dropout rates, some communities are pushing for a more comprehensive prevention approach. PBS NewsHour reports that in Washington, D.C., individual success stories will be advertised at bus stops and on radio commercials – efforts by a truancy task force created by health and family services and law enforcement agencies. In disciplining students who skip school many communities are placing greater emphasis on counseling, parenting classes, and community service and less exposure to the criminal justice system. Evaluating the effectiveness of these and other prevention efforts is important. As the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools indicates, although hundreds of dropout prevention programs exist, very little evidence has been collected regarding their effectiveness.

To combat the dropout problem, in his State of the Union President Obama urged states to require all students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. In response to President Obama’s call, Senior Editor of the Future of Children Cecilia Rouse coauthored a New York Times piece suggesting that while President Obama’s efforts are a step in the right direction, the most effective solutions should begin much earlier. “Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start (early); preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Read more about programs for improving outcomes among adolescents and young adults in the Future of Children volumes School Readiness, Transition to Adulthood and Juvenile Justice.

Incarceration and the Family

National Public Radio’s Tell Me More recently featured a discussion on a surprising trend in the US criminal justice system – the number of offenders under adult correctional supervision has begun to decline. While the incarceration rate in 2010 was still about seven times the average in Western Europe, the number under court supervision dropped by 1.3 percent. Experts attribute the decline to a realization among policymakers that there are more effective and affordable ways to treat nonviolent offenders.

About 2.7 million people under age 18, representing about 1 in 28 children in the US, had a parent in jail or prison in 2010, according to a Pew Research study. As noted in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families, in many cases there are negative outcomes for families when parents are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. Formerly incarcerated fathers have lower earnings, are less likely to work, and are more likely to experience homelessness. Their children are more likely to face material hardship and residential moves, have contact with the foster care system, show aggressive behavior, and are less likely to live with both biological parents. Findings suggest that these negative effects extend beyond parent-child separation and are limited to families who don’t report domestic violence, suggesting that incarceration may have positive outcomes where domestic violence has occurred.

As state budgets face continual strains, finding new ways to treat nonviolent offenders may be a winning solution for both states and families. However, all new strategies must be carefully examined before implementation.

In the Future of Children Fragile Families volume, researchers argue that any proposed reform should first be assessed in terms of its consequences for families. Intensive community supervision is recommended, along with drug treatment where necessary, and a system that allows for a timely response to probation and parole violations without a disproportionately severe prison time. For reducing the risk of returning to prison, the volume recommends reentry programs to provide transitional services for education and training, medical treatment, housing, and job placement. Research links such programs to lower recidivism and improved employment for ex-prisoners. For more discussion on alternatives to incarceration and policy recommendations to reduce recidivism, see the Future of Children’s issues on Juvenile Justice, the Transition to Adulthood, and Fragile Families.

Recently Released, Now Welcome Home?

The Future of Children blog recently touched on issues faced by previously incarcerated young men and their families. As noted in the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families, incarceration places additional strain on fathers by reducing earnings, compromising health, and increasing the likelihood of family breakup.

In addition to these barriers to re-entry, the latest research brief from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study indicates that previously incarcerated fathers are also at greater risk of experiencing housing insecurity such as homelessness, eviction, and being forced to move in with someone else due to financial constraints. A lack of stable housing complicates matters for recently released fathers seeking employment to support their families. Applicants often need a residential address and contact information when applying for a job. They may also be at greater risk of returning to jail if driven to sleep in public or loiter.

What can be done to help recently incarcerated young fathers get back on their feet?

The Fragile Families research brief recommends making educational and work programs accessible to prisoners prior to and upon release. Increased earnings may help ex-prisoners better maintain stable housing. As highlighted in an earlier Future of Children blog, some policies promote the hiring of ex-offenders by prohibiting questions about prior convictions from initial job interviews. Earlier this month, National Public Radio highlighted programs that seek to connect ex-offenders to medical treatment and housing. For more recommendations for policies and programs to help recently incarcerated young men, see the Future of Children issues on the Transition to Adulthood and Fragile Families.

Tackling Poverty and Unemployment: A New York Example

More people are living below the official poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four in 2010) than have been since the Census Bureau began publishing data on it, reports The New York Times. Over two and a half million dropped below this line last year, bringing the number of poor Americans to 46.2 million. A crumbling economy and shifting demographics are among the reasons for this increase, but according to economists, unemployment is the biggest issue, as 48 million people ages 18 to 64 did not work a single week last year.

While the effects of unemployment and a weak economy are felt by many, the hardest hit are racial and ethnic minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, whose poverty levels are at 27% and 26% respectively. Explained in The Future of Children volume The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies, of particular concern are nonwhite young men. In few locations is this more evident than in New York City, where one study of five boroughs found the poverty rate for black and Latino young men to be 50 percent higher, and the unemployment rate 60 percent higher, than that of their white and Asian counterparts.

According to the Huffington Post, one factor that might play a part in the high unemployment rates for these young men is the high percentage of racial and ethnic minorities now incarcerated. One in eight black males in their twenties is in prison or jail on any given day. Devah Pager, Princeton University professor and research associate for the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, reports that within one year after release, up to 75 percent of ex-convicts are still without work.

These figures represent a crisis that New York City Deputy Mayor Gibbs says demands an urgent response, “New York City is going to send a signal that the situation facing young black and Latino men requires the same kind of aggressive, cross-agency response that a natural disaster would demand, because fixing these outcomes is critical to the City’s health and future.” The “signal” he refers to is the initiation of a public-private partnership presented by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg early last month in an effort to cut down barriers to employment. The strategy, dubbed the Young Men’s Initiative, involves investments of over $127 million over the next three years into policies and programs that will connect young men in the City to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities, and will include an overhaul of the Department of Probation, which supervises nearly 30,000 New Yorkers, most of whom are black and Latino men.

An important component of Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative, as highlighted by the Huffington Post, is new policy regarding the hiring process for City positions. City agencies are to prohibit questions about prior convictions from the initial job interview; only after this first stage will applicants be asked about their criminal history. They must still submit themselves to a background check, but their offenses will be examined in view of the job requirements.

In the past, some opposition has been reported for these so-called “Ban-the-Box” policies, which have been practiced in other states and major cities. Business owners may not consider it wise to invest resources toward applicants, only to find they have a criminal record and choose not to hire them. Still, the purpose of such policy is to help young adults get a leg up, many of whom are otherwise good candidates for some positions. As Washington works to tackle the nation’s unemployment in an effort to prevent more from slipping below the poverty line, could they benefit from looking to cities like New York as an example? The Future of Children’s Transition to Adulthood volume stresses the need to provide opportunities to those who are willing to work but have difficulty finding steady employment because of a criminal history or other circumstances. Some of these include extending the age of eligibility of youth-serving programs into young adulthood and moving from a set of independent systems into a single integrated system.

FOC Research Supports Supreme Court Decision Rejecting Life without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

Yesterday’sSupreme Court decision, banning sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who have not committed murder, was right on. As our volume Juvenile Justice demonstrates, over a decade of social science research has demonstrated that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults and this needs to be considered when making decisions about culpability and punishment.

Compared to adults, adolescents are impulsive, short-sighted, and easily influenced by peers. In general, they do not think ahead, and they are unduly influenced by the potential rewards of risky decisions and less concerned about potential costs. Most crimes committed by juveniles are impulsive, stupid, non-violent acts that occur when they are with their friends, not calculated decisions that are well thought through.
Therefore, punitive policies often do not deter juveniles from crime because the same factors that lead adolescents to commit crimes in the first place make them less likely to be deterred by punitive sanctions. To be deterred by the prospect of a long sentence, or incarceration, or transfer into the adult system, a teenager needs to think long-term, like an adult. This is not to say that juvenile offenders should be not held accountable for their crimes. They absolutely should – but in a way that recognizes the offenders’ youth and gives them a second chance. Life without parole for non-homicide offenses does not take into account that juvenile criminals may well mature into law abiding adults with the proper treatment and interventions. To refuse to offer these and lock teens up for life is indeed cruel and unusual punishment.

Partnering with Community Mental Health Services Aids Juvenile Justice System

A youth diagnosed with bipolar disorder and accused of breaking and entering approaches the court. The judge faces a choice: place him in underfunded mental health care in the community, where he may not receive the treatment he needs, or put him in the juvenile justice system, where he may be adversely affected by the criminality surrounding him. The New York Times recently profiled one such youth, Daniel, who has been in juvenile detention for two years because authorities felt he would receive better treatment there than in his home in Ohio. The Future of Children examined this topic in a recent volume on Juvenile Justice. The volume’s article on mental health found that youth would benefit from better evaluation of mental disorders and from more cooperation between mental health and correctional agencies.
Currently, many systems operate independently to help at-risk youth. Juvenile justice, mental health, education, and child protection institutions all treat youth separately, despite these issues’ interconnectedness. For instance, half to two-thirds of children in juvenile justice custody meet criteria for mental disorders – two-thirds of these for at least two disorders. Both institutional limitations and a lack of standards prevent court authorities from determining which youth would benefit most from community-based treatment, which might be harmed from exposure to prisons, and which pose safety risks to society that necessitate their isolation. This leaves the juvenile justice system to handle many youth who might respond better to mental health treatment outside of detention.
Mitigation of these issues begins with evaluating and sorting criminally detained youth using evidence-based methods that have recently become available. Those deemed not to be dangerous but who have long-term mental health needs, particularly those charged with lesser crimes, should be directed to proven community-based treatment programs. Not only have some of these programs been shown to help improve mental health, but they also reduce recidivism and anti-social behaviors. Youth with mental health disorders that are sentenced to detention should also receive better mental health treatment. Detention centers can partner with community groups to bring professionals into detention centers and offer specialized services to youth with severe difficulties.
Everyone benefits from collaboration between juvenile justice facilities and community mental health programs: courts can direct youth to appropriate services, the community is safer as recidivism declines, and troubled youth receive the treatment they need in order to adjust to a healthful lifestyle.

Reform Juvenile Justice Programs Today

Over the past decade researchers have identified intervention strategies and program models that reduce juvenile delinquency and promote pro-social development. However, while we have more than ten years of solid research about evidence-based programs, only about five percent of eligible youth participate in these programs.

The result is a waste of human capital and money. First, delinquency increases the risk of drug use and dependency, school drop-out, incarceration, injury, early pregnancy, and adult criminality. Second, since most adult criminals begin their criminal careers as juveniles, preventing delinquency prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the financial and emotional burden of crime on victims and on society.
Put bluntly — it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to implement evidence-based programs. While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.
States don’t implement evidence-based treatment programs for a number of reasons.
  • First, agencies rarely invest in developing data systems that permit them to monitor which programs are working and which are not; therefore, most states’ juvenile justice systems have no idea if they are spending their money wisely.
  • Second, many policymakers are often unaware of research evidence on programs and policies that are not only effective in reducing juvenile delinquency but also cost-effective.
  • Third, often what works is at odds with “get tough on crime” public sentiment, and some policy makers are unwilling to choose evidence over politics.
Researchers have identified a dozen "proven" delinquency-prevention programs. Another twenty to thirty "promising" programs are still being tested. The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place, divert first-time offenders from further encounters with the justice system, and emphasize family interactions. A full list of programs that have been evaluated for delinquency prevention and intervention and an estimation of their cost savings and effectiveness can be found in Table 2 in an article by Peter Greenwood in our most recent volume of The Future of Children.
Reform of the juvenile justice system makes sense from all perspectives. Many states are poised to begin this work today, if for no other reason than to save taxpayer money being spent on building prisons. We need to create a system that decreases the number of youth becoming delinquent in the first place and prevents those youth who do stray from becoming adult criminals.

Juvenile Justice: Keeping Teens Out of Jail

A recent incident involving an eight year old murder suspect has reignited the debate over the age at which children should be charged as adults. “Experts Doubt That 8-Year-Old’s Taped Confession in Double Killing Is Admissible,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008 True, this was a highly unusual case (As Dr. Tom Grisso, one of the authors who contributed to The Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, noted to the New York Times, trying an eight year old as an adult would be “more than extraordinary. It would be totally unique.” And predictably, the jurisdiction issue has since been resolved (it is now in juvenile court with a plea agreement being offered). But the case did raise the more common issue of when it is appropriate to treat juveniles as adults and move them from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system.

According to a recent Future of Children policy brief 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. Scien­tific evaluations of prevention and treatment programs for youth that provide systematic treatment in community and family settings show that these programs significantly re­duce future criminal behavior without the need for harsh sanctions. States should adapt their laws on juvenile crime to emphasize evidence-based treatment and to avoid harsh punishment for all but repeat violent offenders. (From “Keeping Adolescents out of Prison,” by Laurence Steinberg and Ron Haskins). This issue was discussed in depth at recent Future of Children conference on this topic.