DRAFT-NOT FOR CITATION
Juvenile Justice in the United States:
A Review of Policies, Programs and Trends
Prepared for the European Working Group on Juvenile Justice
Josine Junger-Tas, Convener
College of Criminal Justice
360 Huntington Avenue
421 Churchill Hall
Boston, MA 02115
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice
8001 Natural Bridge Road
St. Louis, MO 63121-4499
I. Main Policies for Prevention Treatment and
Context for Understanding Policy
No policy or policies can be understood outside of the context in which they are
made and must operate. Thus we provide a brief set of background or contextual issues
that provide an important framework for understanding the Juvenile Justice system in the
United States and its policies. 1
Twenty years ago, Carter (1984: 36) noted that in order to comprehend juvenile
justice in the United States, it was essential to understand three points. First, the size of
the system(s) is/are enormous. All fifty states, the District of Columbia – and to some
extent the federal government – have separate systems of juvenile justice. Second, the
systems are extremely complex internally and externally. This is especially true of the
interaction of the system with other public and private forms of control, including
schools, mental health, public health, and agencies of government. Third, Carter
underscores the dynamic character of the system(s), noting the significance of paying
close attention to trends in those systems.
Social and Demographic Context
A key to understanding the main policies of prevention, treatment and
procedural/individual rights is to understand some of the context of the juvenile
population, juvenile crime, and the juvenile justice system.2 There are approximately 70
million people under the age of eighteen in the United States, a figure projected to
increase to over 80 million by the year 2030. This projected increase represents an
increase of twenty-one percent from 1995 to 2030. The population of 15-17 year olds,
the primary population “served‟ by the juvenile court, is increasing at a similarly
dramatic pace. By 2007 it is projected that there will be roughly 13 million juveniles in
this age range, a number similar to that recorded at its peak in the 1970‟s during the midst
of the post World War II baby boom. This increase is projected to be dramatically higher
among minorities, particularly Asian/Pacific Islanders (65%) and Hispanics (60%).
It is important to observe at the outset of this essay, that the use of the word “system” is
a misnomer. There is no juvenile justice system in the United States. Indeed, some argue
that it was not possible to speak of n adult criminal justice system in the United States
until the 1960‟s (Klein, 1984).
An excellent website that maintains much of these data, that allows for individual
queries of the data can be found at http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/ojstatbb/index.html. The data for
this section of the paper is drawn from Snyder and Sickmund, 1999.
Complicating this picture is the fact that a large fraction of juveniles live in poverty in the
United States (roughly twenty percent), and that the child poverty rate is increasing faster
than that for adults or the elderly. There is good news in that the poverty rates of Black
and Hispanic youth are at their lowest period in the past decade. Family structure has
changed for juveniles living in the US, with many fewer juveniles living in a home with
two parents. In 1997, three-quarters of White children lived with two parents, sixty-four
percent of Hispanic children lived with both parents, but only thirty-five percent of
African-American children lived with both parents. While the birth rate among teenaged
girls in the United States has declined steadily through the 1990s, it remains higher than
in the 1980s. In addition, the teenage birth rate of 57 per 1,000 teenaged girls is
significantly higher than in other industrialized democracies such as Canada (32),
England (26), Australia (22), the Netherlands (6), Norway (15), and Japan (4). High
School completion rates have increased for all race/ethnic groups, and roughly 88% of
18-24 year olds have completed high school.
These data describe some of the challenges facing juvenile justice in the United
States, both in the contemporary setting as well as for future generations. Further context
for the juvenile justice system can be found in data regarding juvenile victimization. The
juvenile homicide peak in the US occurred in the early 1990‟s but has declined
significantly since then. Black teenaged males are disproportionately represented in
homicide victimization statistics. Juvenile homicides (15-17 years old) are more likely to
involve a firearm than any other age group. Juvenile suicide rates are just as important as
juvenile homicide victimization rates, and suicide rates for juveniles are roughly half of
their homicide victimization rates. It is important to note in this comparative context, that
both homicide and suicide victimization rates in the US are consistently higher than those
for other industrialized countries. Juveniles experience other forms of violent
victimization in addition to homicide. Data drawn from the National Crime
Victimization Survey (NCVS) indicate that juveniles are at especially high risk for being
victims of violent crime. Indeed, 12-17 year olds represent roughly twenty percent of all
victims of serious criminal violence. Juveniles are particularly likely to be victims of
assault, twice as likely adults. Males, racial and ethnic minorities, and residents of cities
are most likely to be victims of these crimes. Juvenile victimization occurs in a patterned
manner with regard to time of day, with the highest risk period being just after the end of
the school day. Consistent with a growing body of research about juvenile victimization
(Lauritsen, Sampson and Laub, 1991), juveniles who engage in delinquent offending put
themselves at increased risk for victimization. This is particularly true for drug use
among juveniles in the U.S. That is, juveniles who engage in drug use are at highly
elevated risk for victimization, particularly of violent crimes.
Unlike the issue of victimization, there are multiple data sources available to
assess the extent of offending by juveniles. These include primarily self-report studies
and official crime statistics, and to a lesser extent, the NCVS. Official crime statistics
(the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation based on
reports from local police jurisdictions) documented just fewer than 1500 homicides
involving juveniles as offenders in 1997, a decline from the peak of 2300 in 1994.
Juveniles involved in homicide are spatially concentrated. Indeed, eight of the nation‟s
more than 3,000 counties accounted for twenty-five percent of all juvenile homicide
offenders. This illustrates the highly concentrated and urban nature of homicides
perpetrated by juveniles. Juveniles are over-represented in a number of offense types.
A large proportion of juveniles have engaged in delinquent behaviors, according
to self-report data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Some of the more
prevalent juvenile offenses include: using alcohol (39%), using marijuana (21%),
engaging in property destruction (28%), carrying a gun (19%), belonging to a gang (5%),
and stealing something valued at more than $500 (8%). In addition, eight percent of
juveniles report ever being arrested in their lifetime. Males report more involvement in
delinquent activities, and race/ethnic minorities report greater involvement in offenses
such as assault and gang membership.
Serious juvenile violence declined by one-third between 1993 and 1997, a greater
rate of decline than for adults. Juvenile assaults were more likely to occur in the after-
school hours. This pattern is similar to that for victimization reported above, and
suggests policy implications discussed below.
The majority of juveniles who enter the juvenile justice system make one
appearance never to return again. For boys, this is the pattern for fifty-four percent of all
referrals; for girls it is the case for seventy-three of all referrals. This has important
implications for prevention and intervention strategies and we discuss this at some length
later in this paper. Estimates of the cost of a lifetime of juvenile offending are of course
based on several assumptions the validity of which cannot be fully assessed. However,
the best estimates indicate that a juvenile who drops out of high school and engages in a
lifetime of offending and drug use generates a cost to society between $1.7 and $2.3
Another part of the picture of juvenile offending is revealed by arrest statistics
collected by local law enforcement and compiled by the F.B.I. as part of the Uniform
Crime Reporting program. For calendar year 1997, just over 2.8 million juveniles were
arrested. More than four-fifths of these were for four offense types, larceny-theft, simple
assault, drug abuse violations and disorderly conduct. This suggests that a substantial
number of juveniles are arrested each year, the majority for minor offense categories.
Five percent of arrests for that year were for crimes of violence (murder, rape, robbery or
aggravated assault). These arrests accounted for nearly twenty percent of all juvenile
arrests that the police made in that year. There were more arrests for crimes of violence,
weapons, drugs and curfew violations than other offense types. Overall, arrests of
juveniles increased dramatically from 1988 to 1994, but since then, there has been a
steady decline in juvenile arrests. Interestingly, there is little correspondence across the
fifty states in the juvenile property and violent crime arrest rates. In other words, states
with high rates of violence committed by juveniles are not likely to have high rates of
property crime committed by juveniles. In addition, property crime arrests of juveniles
have been relatively flat since the early 1980s, with notable declines in burglary.
Juvenile females have seen increased arrest rates compared to juvenile males, a pattern
that is particularly strong for assault, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.
The juvenile courts process a large number of cases annually, but still only a
fraction of all juvenile arrests3. Eighty-six percent of delinquency arrests and forty-eight
percent of status offense are referred to the court by the police. Not surprisingly, within
each category of offense type (delinquency and status) the seriousness of the offense has
a strong bearing on the decision by law enforcement to bring the case to the attention of
the juvenile court. In 1986, a total of 1.76 million cases were handled by the juvenile
courts of the United States, representing about 1.2 million juveniles. This is more than
four times as many cases as juvenile courts handled in 1960. There was an increase in
juvenile court cases compared to 1987 (49%), a figure greater than the growth in the
juvenile population during that time (35%). These increases were not confined to certain
age categories or offense types, as increases were observed across most age groups and
offense types. The increase in court cases was most pronounced for drug and person
offense cases. As noted above in comparing arrests patterns for juvenile males and
females, increases for female referrals to the juvenile court have been sharper than for
males from 1986 to 1997. The rate of referral for Black juveniles to the juvenile court is
more than twice that experienced by White youths. And there is some evidence that the
over-representation of Black youth in the juvenile court is increasing rather than
The second step in the juvenile justice process after referral to the court is the
detention decision. In 1996, nationally eighteen percent of youth referred to the juvenile
court were held in detention. Juveniles held on charges of drug or personal crimes were
the most likely to receive detention, with public order and property crimes less likely to
receive detention. In 1996, more than 640,000 youth were held in detention after their
referral to the court. Males were much more likely to be detained than females, and
Blacks were more likely to be detained than Whites or members of any other race. Just
as the use of detention has increased over time, informal adjustment of cases has declined
over time, and formal hearings now account for the process in more than half of all
delinquency cases. These two trends reflect the increasing formality of juvenile justice
system responses. When cases are adjudicated in the juvenile court, the majority result in
either placement in a residential facility or probation (82%).
One interesting way to assess what the juvenile court does with cases is to
examine the outcome for every 1,000 delinquency cases (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999).
For every 1,000 delinquency cases referred to the juvenile court, 441 are not petitioned.
Of this group, 197 are dismissed, 140 receive probation, 100 receive another sanction and
4 are placed in a residential facility. Of the 550 cases that are petitioned, 6 are waived to
adult court, 230 are non-adjudicated and 323 are adjudicated. Of the non-adjudicated
cases, the majority (138) are dismissed, forty-six receive probation, forty-one receive
other sanctions and five are placed. Of the adjudicated cases, the majority (175) receive
probation, ninety-one are placed, forty-three receive other sanctions and the remainder
In 1997, just over 106,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement
facilities. The majority of these juveniles were held on a delinquency offense (77%),
though seven percent were held on status offenses and sixteen percent were non-
For an excellent description of the juvenile justice system in the United States and the
numbers of case processed at each step of the system, see Lundman, 2001, p. 24.
offenders4. Roughly three-quarters of these juveniles were held in public facilities,
private facilities accounted for the balance. The “detention rate” (the custody rate per
100,000 juveniles) varied widely across the states, illustrating the difficulty in
characterizing a US juvenile justice system, rather than a collection of fifty-one separate
systems. Hawaii held 13 youths per 100,000 in custody, while the District of Columbia
(332/100,000) and Georgia (172/100,000) represented the highest figures. Some states
are much more likely to use private facilities than others for the placement of adjudicated
juveniles. Massachusetts (64%) and Iowa (60%) use private facilities more often than
other states, while Mississippi (0%) and Nevada (3%) use private facilities rarely if at all.
As noted above for the arrest and court appearance stages of the juvenile justice system,
Black youth are over-represented in custody. Nationally Blacks are five times more
likely than Whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics to be held in custody. Females
account for a small proportion of juveniles in custody (21% of 13 year olds, the peak age
group for females in custody), but present their own special challenges for management
of residential facilities. In 1996, forty percent of juveniles were being held in facilities
that were operating above their capacity level. Imposition of the death penalty for
juveniles has been rare, but there are currently 164 offenders on death row whose capital
offense was committed while a juvenile.
We offer a diagram below (Figure 1) taken from Snyder and Sickmund (1997, 98)
that identifies the major decision making steps in the juvenile justice system. This
diagram should be contrasted to that offered by Carter, 1984, 18) for the increased role of
waiver and other more formal means of disposing of cases. The differences illustrate
changes that have taken place in American juvenile justice in the past two decades.
These include juveniles held on abuse or neglect or voluntarily admitted youth.
Key Policy Areas
Here we borrow from the framework identified by Klein (1984) in his
introduction to an edited volume describing western systems of juvenile justice, just two
decades ago. At that time, Carter identified seven key policy areas that must be
understood to fully appreciate juvenile justice systems in the United States: age, status
offenses, discretion, other systems of control, diversion, demographic bias and trends.
We deal with the first six here, policy trends are dealt with separately. It is important to
observe that a recent report published by the U.S. Justice Department (Snyder and
Sickmund, 1999, 89) concluded that from 1992 through 1997, “…legislatures in 47 states
and the District of Columbia enacted law that made their juvenile justice systems more
There continues to be considerable variation across the states regarding the age of
jurisdiction for the juvenile court. In the U.S. the states set these age limits. This
variation occurs at both the minimum age of responsibility, the age at which waiver to the
adult court is possible, the age at which a juvenile is eligible for a capital trial, as well as
the upper age limit of jurisdiction. The trend across the states has been to lower each of
these ages, and in some cases the lower age limit for juvenile court jurisdiction has been
dropped considerably. North Carolina uses the age of 6 as the minimum age to consider
a case for a delinquency hearing. Three states use the age of seven, one uses eight, and
eleven states use the age of ten. At the upper end of jurisdiction, the majority of states
use the age of seventeen (38 states), while three states use the age of fifteen as the upper
limit for jurisdiction over delinquency cases. It is also possible for states to extend
jurisdiction over juveniles who are already under juvenile court supervision well into
their twenties. Clearly, the age jurisdiction policies of American states have attempted to
have it both ways, arguing that responsibility begins early (age 6 in North Carolina), but
ends late (24 in California, Montana, Oregon and Wisconsin).
Status offenses continue to be an important avenue for referral to the juvenile
court. Status offenses are acts that if committed by an adult would not be considered
violations of the law. Thus due to their age, juveniles can be brought under the
jurisdiction of the juvenile court for violating curfews, being beyond the control of the
parents (incorrigibility), and being truant from school. Despite legislation in the 1970s to
attempt to curb court jurisdiction over Children in Need of Supervision, and regulate their
confinement, there has not been significant progress on these issues. Some states have
moved to handle status offenses in a manner similar to neglect or dependency cases as
indicators of social problems rather than delinquency. Status offenders continue to be
among the most difficult challenges for most juvenile court jurisdictions.
Klein observed in 1984 that, with regard to discretion in the juvenile justice
system, the United States was one of two nations that exercised the greatest amount of
discretion. Little has changed to alter that perspective, except at the punitive end of
discretion. The significant changes in discretion that have occurred over the past two
decades, particularly since the early 1990‟s, have all served to reduce discretion in ways
that increase punitiveness. That is, punishment grids, waiver decisions, and supervision
have been increased by the reduction of discretion. Rather than move toward a system
where judges and decision-makers consider the individual circumstances behind the
actions of a juvenile, those decision-makers find their hands increasingly tied by
punishment grids, mandatory minimums, and other forms of increased punishment. It is
important to note that at the critical stage of intake (i.e., decisions made by the police and
prosecutors) discretion remains high, and largely is not reviewed by higher authorities.
The juvenile justice system in the United States has long relied on other, related
systems of treatment, intervention and punishment. In many European countries, this has
meant the use of other governmental functions outside the juvenile justice system
(Carlsson and Decker, 2005). In the United States the use of such “other” systems has
largely meant the use of systems from the private sector. Such states as Florida rely
almost exclusively on private systems of control for secure commitment functions,
particularly at the more secure levels of confinement for juveniles.
The trend in the 1970‟s and 1980‟s in America to attempt to use diversion has
largely been sidetracked by the reliance on punitive responses of the past decade. It is
not an overstatement to observe that diversion was one of the key policy initiatives in
juvenile justice in American twenty years ago. However, diversion remains an important
function in American juvenile justice, particularly for prevention efforts and first-time or
As will be documented below, juvenile justice in the United States
continues to include disproportionate proportions of minority youth at every decision-
making stage. Whether one examines police referral patterns, court intake, detention,
secure detention or length of confinement issues, minority youth, and particularly
African-American males are over-represented. There have been a number of policy
initiatives that have attempted to address this reality; to date none have been very
successful. In some jurisdictions, the over-representation is so severe that the majority of
Black teenaged males will appear in juvenile court.5 The federal government, several
states, local juvenile court jurisdictions and private foundations have engaged in efforts to
reduce disproportionate minority confinement, and found these to be tough policy and
program choices. Such efforts have been complicated by the increases in youth violence
in the early 1990s.
Decker and Curry (2002) report that in St. Louis, Missouri more than half of all fifteen
and sixteen year olds black males will be referred to the juvenile court and have an intake
II. Trends in Policies and III. Practical Outcomes of
In the last 15 years, a vast array of new juvenile justice policies and programs has
been introduced in the United States. Reforms have taken place at the local, state, and
federal levels and have concentrated primarily on three fronts. The first, which has
attracted a great deal of media attention both at home and abroad, involves a movement
to “crack down” or “get tough” on serious and chronic offenders. The spirit of this
movement is captured in the slogan “adult crime, adult time,” and has affected the nature
of American juvenile justice in a number of important ways. At the extreme, the
Supreme Court in 1989 upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty for crimes
committed by persons as young as 16 (Stanford v. Kentucky). Seventeen of the 50 states
now permit the execution of 16-year olds convicted of murder. Although only a small
number of individuals who committed crimes as juveniles currently await execution, that
any do constitutes a violation of international law6 and reflects the exceedingly punitive
climate that exists in the United States. Also representative of the “get tough” movement,
nearly every state and the federal jurisdiction amended its juvenile codes in the 1990s to
transfer greater numbers of juveniles to criminal court for prosecution and punishment as
adults. Many have, in addition, instituted “blended sentencing,” a curious and
unprecedented mix of both juvenile and adult sanctions applied to the same individual.
These reforms, which have occurred in rapid-fire fashion, have blurred the traditional
boundary that separates juvenile from criminal court jurisdiction (in most states, the 18th
birthday) and generated a crisis in the juvenile court.
If the first front is aimed at serious, chronic and violent offenders, the second is
directed toward the other end of the spectrum, i.e., toward children and youth who are at-
risk for delinquency. In the past 10-15 years, governmental support for policies and
programs of delinquency prevention and early intervention has grown. Although some
prevention programs are delivered to the youth population at large, most are more
selective, targeting those who exhibit empirically identified risk factors for delinquency.
The contexts in which at-risk children live–their families, schools, and communities–have
also become foci of intervention. Prevention programs cover a broad spectrum: They
range from efforts to prevent risk factors from developing among children who are yet in
utero to efforts to divert from the juvenile court first-offenders arrested for non-serious
A third front, which is still taking shape, is aimed at the very large group of mid-
range offenders who are formally processed in the juvenile courts. The U.S. approach to
these offenders is very much in transition, and philosophies and practices aimed at this
group show tremendous variation across jurisdictions. The general trend over the past
two decades has been to engraft punitive (deterrent, retributive, and incapacitative)
objectives onto the traditional treatment mission that has so uniquely characterized
American juvenile courts. While some commentators contend that the rehabilitative
mission of the juvenile court has been thoroughly supplanted by these other objectives
The United States is one of only two nations in the world that has not ratified the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
(see, e.g., Feld, 1999), others maintain that it remains, for the most part, alive and well
(see, e.g., Butts and Mears, 2001; Howell, 2003; Sanborn and Salerno, in press). New,
innovative, and empirically grounded approaches to treatment have been implemented
(e.g., multisystemic therapy, teaching family homes) alongside approaches that are
unequivocally punitive (e.g., determinate and mandatory minimum sentencing, graduated
sanctions, most boot camps). These conflicting policy and programmatic developments
reflect the juvenile justice system‟s adaptation to the highly politicized environment of
the 1980s and 1990s (see Sanborn and Salerno, in press; Butts and Mears, 2001).
In the following section, we discuss each of these policy trends in greater detail.
However, it is important to place each of these policy trends in a broader context, as none
is unique to the recent generation of juvenile justice reform in the United States. The
orientations of rehabilitation and punishment have been central themes to the practice and
evolution of juvenile justice in the United States since the origins of the system. Platt‟s
(1977) work on the origins of the juvenile court in the United States illustrates the
conflicting orientations of the juvenile justice system. The Illinois Juvenile Court Act
(IJCA) of 1899 is credited with beginning the first organized juvenile court system in the
US. However, there are numerous institutions that preceded the IJCA that laid the
foundation for the Act in Illinois, as well as for juvenile justice practice. Notable among
these institutions were the New York House of Refuge, an early attempt to separate
children from adults in confinement. In addition, the reformatory movement attempted to
bring a more humane form of incarceration for offenders in the nineteenth century, albeit
with questionable results (Pisciotta, 1994).
The history of juvenile justice and adult criminal justice in the US is replete with
examples of interventions, policies and practices in which the rhetoric and reality differed
considerably (Rothman, 1971; Platt, 1999; Ainsworth, 1999; Pisciotta, 1991, 1984,
1993). This state of affairs has led some to conclude that juvenile justice has resulted in
“benevolent repression,” in part because of the admixture of rehabilitation and
punishment represented by the court. The two competing ideologies that seem to provide
a foundation for much of the history of juvenile justice are “the welfare of the child” and
“the safety of the community.” These two extremes have led to “doing nothing” on the
one hand, and intervening with harsh penalties on the other. Bernard (1992) captures the
balancing act between these two orientations in his book, The Cycle of Juvenile Justice.
Bernard argues that there is a cyclical aspect to juvenile justice policy when it is
examined over time. The cycle is driven by a perception that juvenile crime rates are
excessively high7, and this leads to harsh punishments throughout the juvenile justice
system. In a dialectic sense, this produces an eventual call for increased leniency, in part
because the court is faced with a “forced choice” between doing (little or) nothing and
reacting harshly. This “leniency” is followed by the perception that juvenile crime rates
are “out of control,” leading again to harsher, more repressive interventions. Bernard
argues that images of juvenile delinquency are central to changes in juvenile justice
policy and reform. Legal philosophers such as Francis Allen (1991) argue effectively
that the lack of a coherent framework for intervention, policy and legislation leads to
In the 1990‟s this led to the identification of “the young and the ruthless,” “a
new breed of young killers,” and “super-predators.” (Fox, 1992; Bennett, DiIlulio, &
“irrationalities” that undermine the effectiveness of a system and create competing goals
and in the end a somewhat chaotic system. Because of the lack of coherence in juvenile
justice in the United State, the system can alternate between harsh punishments and
benevolent social interventions, neither of which has much chance of achieving its goals.
“Get Tough” Reforms for Serious Offenders
Though it is a fact not widely known, since its inception at the end of the 19th
century the juvenile court in the United States has always maintained a “trap door”
through which young offenders could be removed to the criminal courts for prosecution
and punishment as adults (Tanenhaus, 2004). Chronic offenders–those who continued to
violate the law despite repeated intervention–posed a direct challenge to the effectiveness
(and legitimacy) of the new court. A second group–those who committed truly heinous
crimes that provoked public demands for harsh punishments–similarly posed a problem
for the new court. Harsh retributive sanctions were not only contrary to the juvenile
court‟s social welfare mission but were also beyond the court‟s capacity to provide.8
With little fanfare, the small number of youth who fell into these two categories were sent
to criminal court. This action shielded the juvenile court from criticism and allowed it to
function as intended for the vast majority of young offenders–that is, as a refuge from
harsh criminal punishments and as a welfare agency bent on helping youth make their
way through the sturm and drang of adolescence to productive adult lives.
For a very long time, the trap door remained narrow and functioned largely
unnoticed. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, a major shift occurred. Prompted by
dramatic increases in youth violence from 1987-1993 that received sensationalized media
coverage, popular images of delinquent youth changed. The archetypal delinquent of a
generation ago–the pot-smoking kid (of any color) who busts school windows and steals
cars–was replaced by the menacing image of the Black or Hispanic gun–wielding drug
dealer who commits random acts of lethal violence. These perceptions of delinquents as
dangerous and savvy have prompted a stream of legislation. Nearly every state and the
federal jurisdiction enacted laws that both expanded the pool of transfer-eligibles and
expedited their removal from the juvenile system. During the past 15 years, these and
other innovations that blur traditional lines of distinction between juvenile and criminal
justice (e.g., “blended jurisdiction” statutes, modifications in the age of criminal
responsibility) have generated heated debate in both academic and policy circles
regarding core juvenile justice issues: e.g., Do we need a juvenile court? What is the
rationale for a juvenile court? Who belongs in juvenile court and who doesn‟t? No
consensus has been reached on answers to these critical questions. Change has proceeded
in a theoretical void, and its end is very much uncertain.
To expedite transfer to criminal court, “legislative exclusion” and “prosecutorial
waiver” statutes were passed that circumvented the traditional mode of transfer–a waiver
hearing in juvenile court. In Kent v. United States (1966) waiver hearings were
regularized. Recognizing that transfer was a matter of momentous consequence that
signaled the end of childhood and threatened the juvenile with adult sanctions that might
be permanently disfiguring, the Supreme Court mandated a formal hearing and a
In most states, the juvenile court does not retain continuing jurisdiction over
offenders beyond age 18 or 21
thorough investigation into the youth‟s background and circumstances prior to waiver.
Statutes in most jurisdictions specified that waiver required a finding that the youth was
either too dangerous to remain in the juvenile system or no longer “amenable to
treatment” in the juvenile system. Applying these criteria, juvenile court judges seldom
invoked transfer. It was most often applied to repeat offenders who were nearing the age
of majority and who had exhausted the court‟s treatment resources.
With the advent of legislative exclusion and prosecutorial waiver, the
responsibility for transfer shifted to the legislative and executive branches. This
accomplished three things: It expedited the process (no investigations or court hearings
were required), restricted the powers of a judiciary that was perceived as “too soft on
crime,” and, perhaps most important, removed the offender-focus that had been the
hallmark of the transfer decision. Unlike judicial waiver, legislative exclusion and
prosecutorial waiver are offense-driven. Exclusion statutes specify narrow offense or
offense/age criteria for “automatic transfer” to criminal court.9 In many states, they
permit or require the transfer of children as young as 10 who are charged with capital
crimes or life felonies. Prosecutorial waiver allows prosecutors to choose the forum in
which cases will be tried, subject to statutory guidelines (age, offense, and prior record
criteria) that are frequently very broad. For example, in many states the pool of eligibles
includes young people charged with property crimes and misdemeanors.10
In addition to changes in transfer policy, many states have instituted blended
sentencing, which represents a kind of middle ground between the juvenile and adult
systems. Blended sentencing schemes come in a variety of forms, but many
“criminalize” the juvenile court, permitting (and sometimes requiring) judges to impose
lengthy sentences–served initially in the juvenile system, then in the adult system–for
specified offenses. (At the extreme, Texas permits its juvenile judges to impose
sentences of up to 40 years.) Dawson (1988) has aptly described this as the “third justice
system.” Blended sentencing is subject to criticism on a number of grounds. Most
importantly, it lacks a cogent, underlying rationale and potentially sets up a “slippery
slope” leading to a poorly planned merger of the juvenile and adult systems.
In some states, these reforms have greatly increased the numbers of youths
entering the criminal courts. However, their impact nationwide has been somewhat less
consequential than predicted. Although it was believed by some that prescriptive transfer
statutes would literally flood adult jails and prisons with adolescent offenders, the
increase in the numbers of youth transferred nationwide has been fairly modest. One
reason is that prosecutors have not invoked the laws nearly as frequently as they might
have: One recent study found that only 23% of youths eligible for automatic prosecutorial
certification for specified violent felonies were actually transferred (Sridharan,
Greenfield, and Blakley, 2004). Another reason is that criminal courts frequently
Actually, the process is anything but “automatic” because it is dependent on what
charges prosecutors choose to file.
For example, in Florida, prosecutors may choose to treat 16 year-olds charged with
any felony as either juveniles or adults. They can also transfer youths as young as 10,
although the criteria are more restrictive.
sentence transferred offenders more leniently than their adult counterparts These
outcomes are consistent with Professor Zimring‟s observation that criminal law reform
frequently serves primarily symbolic functions, allowing politicians to appear tough on
crime while producing only modest systemic changes. New laws tend to “bark much
louder than they bite...[They]...satisfy the need for symbols of denunciation without
making much difference in the penalties meted out to most offenders” (Zimring 2001: 5).
If transfer reforms have been underutilized, they have nonetheless had a
tremendous impact on the kinds of juveniles who are entering adult corrections systems.
Because legislative exclusion statutes most often target serious and violent offenders
regardless of their age or offense histories, the proportions of young adolescents, racial
minorities, and first-time offenders entering the adult system has increased. The influx of
young teens has burdened departments of correction unaccustomed to the special issues
and problems associated with this population (e.g., increased risk of victimization,
increased suicide risk, special educational needs). In addition, racial disparities in the
application of reforms have exacerbated already serious concerns about disproportionate
minority confinement and “unequal treatment under the law.” Finally, it is unfortunate
that, as a result of the reforms, youth who enter the criminal justice system frequently
have not had the opportunity to benefit from any sort of rehabilitative intervention (see,
Lanza-Kaduce, Frazier, Lane, and Bishop, 2000; Sridharan et al., 2004). Often they are
first offenders with substance abuse and mental health problems who, under the
traditional waiver system, most likely would have been retained in the juvenile system for
treatment (Sridharan et al., 2004). In the adult system, where the incarcerated population
has trebled since 1980 to a recent peak of over 2 million inmates, overcrowding and
simple warehousing are the norm. In that system, the treatment needs of juvenile
offenders almost surely remain unmet (Bishop and Frazier, 2000).
Although we could point to numerous other examples of the “get tough” assault
on serious juvenile offenders (e.g., subjecting them to sex offender registration laws;
counting their prior juvenile convictions as “strikes” for purposes of invoking adult
habitual offender statutes), those we have discussed represent the major reforms in this
area. We turn now to a discussion of recent trends at the “front end” of the system.
At the same time that legislatures were passing punitive reforms for the worst
offenders, Congress was authorizing funds for delinquency prevention programs. Some
are early intervention initiatives, while others are aimed at youths who have already
begun to engage in delinquent behavior.
Early Intervention: In the last decade, early intervention has taken on important new
emphases and become increasingly research-based. Early intervention programs are not
entirely novel. In the 1960s, for example, we saw the development of Head Start, a well-
funded pre-school program for young children in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the
nation‟s inner cities. But, at that time, such programs for children were generally not
implemented under the umbrella of “delinquency prevention.” (Head Start was part of
Lyndon Johnson‟s “War on Poverty.”) Today, that has changed. Influenced by important
theoretical and research advances in developmental criminology (e.g., Loeber and
Farrington, 2000; Patterson and Yoerger, 1993), policy makers have become more
cognizant of the connections between the family, school, and neighborhood contexts in
which young children live and their risk of later delinquency and crime. To an
unprecedented degree, research in developmental criminology has played a role in
shaping at least one part of the nation‟s prevention policy agenda.
We see this most clearly in the 1992 reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.11 The 1992 law12 created the Title V
Community Prevention Grants Program, which is based on the premise that effective
delinquency prevention “begins with an understanding of risk and protective factors”
(Caliber Associates, 2002, p. 4). One of the most exciting aspects of this effort is its
reliance on 1) what we have learned from criminal careers research and epidemiological
criminology about the individual, family, school, and community factors that put children
at risk for serious delinquent involvement, 2) what we have learned from this same
research regarding protective factors that buffer the exposure to risk, and 3) what we have
learned from recent advances in evaluation research about intervention strategies that are
most and least promising (e.g., Sherman et al., 1998; Center for the Study and Prevention
of Violence, n.d.) Much of the research that prevention efforts are based on – including
both long-term longitudinal studies of the etiology of delinquency and sophisticated
evaluation research – has been supported by OJJDP and other federal agencies. It is very
significant that, in order to be eligible for Title V funding, community-grant recipients
must conduct a research-based risk assessment and must choose prevention strategies that
have been proven to be effective [e.g., prenatal/postnatal nurse visitation, parent training,
The Communities That Care (CTC) program, which has been widely adopted,
illustrates this new emphasis on risk-focused prevention. In CTC, entire communities,
rather than individual agencies, receive funding and technical assistance to implement
coordinated systems of delinquency prevention. CTC involves a systematic, multi-step
process: 1) rally community leaders to support delinquency prevention; 2) have them
appoint a community board comprised of at-risk youth, parents, representatives of
business and industry, and representatives of police, courts, corrections, and public and
private youth-serving organizations; 3) have the board carry out an assessment of risk and
protective factors in the community, make an inventory of existing community resources,
and identify gaps in existing resources; 4) with that empirical base as a foundation,
prioritize risks and develop a comprehensive delinquency prevention plan; 5) to address
the community‟s most pressing problems, coordinate existing resources and implement
new programs, selecting from a portfolio of strategies that evaluation research has shown
to be effective (Caliber Associates, 2002). The overall goal is to identify children at
greatest risk, then to mobilize the community to reduce risk through well-coordinated
interventions aimed at families, schools, peer groups, and neighborhoods. Although
these are laudable goals, their attainment is hampered by a number of obstacles, of which
we will mention just two. First, the program is not well funded: 75% of CTC
communities receive annual grants totaling $52,000 or less (Caliber Associates, 2002, p.
19). Second, in the United States, services at the community-level are fragmented. It is
extremely difficult to foster communication and coordination among businesses, police
Public Law 93-415: 42 U.S.C. Section 5601 et seq.
Public Law 107-273.
departments, juvenile courts, child welfare agencies, child protection agencies, school
boards, health departments, mental health agencies, churches, and private not-for-profit
youth-serving agencies. Agencies have domains, many are rule-bound and rigid, and
many have neither the time nor the inclination to work together to develop and implement
well-coordinated community prevention plans.
It remains to be seen whether programs funded under Title V, as well as other
primary prevention programs, will endure and also whether they will be subject to
rigorous evaluation to assess their long-term effectiveness. In the past, prevention efforts
have been notably difficult either to sustain or to evaluate over the long term. Prevention
programs that focus on the long term, and whose effects are difficult to measure, have, at
least until recently, been a “hard sell.” Politicians responsible for funding anti-crime
efforts have instead tended to focus on short-term programs that can demonstrate fairly
immediate and quantifiable results (Lab, 2004). Prevention programs also have had a
faddish quality about them, as each new election cycle brings promises of new and better
programs to replace “failed efforts” that came before. There is a current focus on faith-
based initiatives that is a prime example. In 2001, not long after the inauguration of
President George W. Bush, the Justice Department outlined a Plan for Future Funding
that included special funding opportunities for programs that involve the faith community
(e.g., through mentoring of elementary school children), despite any evidence that faith-
based programs are more effective than secular ones. According to Lab (2004, p.__), this
prevention strategy is merely a politically motivated effort to win votes by courting the
Secondary Prevention: Much more well-funded than primary prevention programs are
those that target youth who have already begun to exhibit problem behaviors, e.g., by
being expelled from school or arrested for the first time, usually for a non-violent offense.
First offenders are frequently diverted from formal juvenile justice processing, continuing
a trend that began in the 1960s. The early diversion movement was influenced to no
small degree by labeling and societal reactions theories that called attention to the
potentially damaging consequences of formal juvenile justice intervention. Although that
diversion movement was only a partial success,13 a number of new diversion programs
have emerged in the last decade.
Teen courts (also called youth courts) represent one such innovation. These are
“informal courts” to which youth are referred in lieu of formal processing. In order to be
tried in teen court, youths must admit responsibility for the offense with which they are
charged and agree to abide by the teen court‟s decision. In return, the charges are
dismissed.14 Referrals to teen court are most often restricted to young, first-time
offenders charged with misdemeanor offenses (e.g., vandalism, shoplifting, alcohol
possession, simple assault). In teen court, adolescents serve as jurors, attorneys, and
sometimes also as judges. Many court personnel are themselves former teen court
Its legacy includes “net widening,” “bootstrapping” (relabeling status offenders as
delinquents to render them eligible for formal intervention), and “transinstitutionalization”
(displacement of offenders from juvenile correctional institutions to mental health facilities).
The only penalty for failure to comply is the reinstatement of charges.
defendants who come back to serve as jurors and attorneys (Butts, Hoffman, and Buck,
1999). The primary underlying premise of the program is that the judgment of a youth‟s
peers may be more persuasive and beneficial than the judgment of adult officials.
Sanctions imposed by teen courts tend to be more severe than those that would have been
imposed had these same youths opted for formal processing. Typically, the teen court
orders community work service or restitution, and the writing of essays or letters of
Like most other juvenile justice innovations, teen court “caught on” in advance of
any empirical research or solid evidence of its long-term effectiveness. Teen courts have
proliferated rapidly--from about 50 in 1991 to about 700 at present–and they currently
represent the fastest growing alternative to formal intervention. It is estimated that teen
courts today handle 100,000 youth per year--or about 1 of every 8 court referrals that are
not formally processed. Thus far, there has been only one major evaluation of teen courts
(Butts, Buck, and Coggeshall, 2002), which was carried out in four sites. Relative to
comparison groups, teen court participants had significantly lower levels of recidivism
over a 6-month follow-up period in two of the four sites.
Other secondary prevention efforts include the many variations on Scared
Straight, a program grounded in deterrence theory that was initiated at Rahway State
Prison in New Jersey in the late 1970s. In this program, teens are taken to prison for a
day and confronted by inmates who intimidate them and relate the horrors of prison life.
Although numerous evaluations of Scared Straight and other programs like it have
consistently shown that they tend to increase rather than reduce recidivism, the popular
myth that threats of punishment are effective deterrents helps to insure their continuation
(Finckenauer and Gavin, 1999).
A discussion of recent trends in prevention would be incomplete without some
mention of “zero tolerance policies.” Following upon some tragic shooting incidents in
suburban high schools in which teens killed and injured their classmates, schools all over
the country began introducing policies of automatic suspension or expulsion and arrest
for bringing weapons of any type into schools. It was not long before these policies were
expanded in many school districts to include the imposition of the same harsh penalties
for possession of drugs and other forms of contraband (e.g., cigarettes), for fighting, and
even for simple violations of school rules. This approach has been criticized for over
breadth (e.g., students have been expelled from school for giving an aspirin to a
classmate, for having a butter knife in a lunch pail, for swearing at a school official) and,
thus far, has shown little if any benefit. It has been linked instead to increased rates of
dropout and delinquency. Because zero tolerance policies have been implemented
disproportionately in inner city schools, they have also had a differentially harsh impact
on impoverished minority youths.
Other diversionary reforms flow out of the restorative justice movement, which
was “virtually unknown to all but a small group of academics at the beginning of the
1990s” (Bazemore and Walgrave, 1999, p.1). Restorative justice programs take a variety
of forms, including victim-offender mediation, community reparation boards, family
group conferencing, and circle sentencing (Bazemore and Umbreit, 2001). Instead of
focusing on the offender, these programs focus on the offense; on its effects on the victim
and (with the exception of victim-offender mediation) the larger community of family
and friends that support both victim and offender; and on apology, forgiveness, and
reparation of harm. Broadly stated, the goals are to educate participants about the harms–
especially the emotional harms and fracturing of relationships–caused by the offense; to
repair the harms; and to rebuild relationships and strengthen systems of informal social
control. The establishment of restorative justice programs in the United States has not
kept pace with similar developments in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and
Canada, though in some jurisdictions substantial progress has been made.15 Bazemore
and Walgrave (1999, p.60) offer the following observations regarding the fact that these
programs have not been more widely adopted:
[J]uvenile justice administrators today are often overwhelmed with responding to
policy-maker demands that they get tough (while continuing to provide
treatment)....In an already overcrowded field where a new “program of the
month” and a new “crisis of the week” vie for the attention of juvenile justice
administrators, it is questionable whether restorative justice practices and policies
will break through as priorities.
Juvenile Court: Processing, Sentencing, and Correctional Reforms For Middle-Range
The third front in American juvenile justice focuses on the very large group of
offenders who are formally processed in the juvenile court. The number of youth
formally processed in the juvenile courts rose significantly from 1990-1999 (from about
650,000 in 1990 to nearly 1 million in 1999 [Puzzanchera et al, 2003]), an increase that
far outstripped the 3% increase in juvenile arrests over the same time period (Snyder,
2002). The reason for the discrepancy is twofold. First, there were changes in the way
that police disposed of juvenile arrests. Over the last 25 years, law enforcement has been
“cracking down” by referring a greater proportion of arrestees to the juvenile court. The
proportion of arrests that were referred to juvenile court rose from 58% to 64% between
1980 and 1990, and from 64% to 72% in the following decade (Snyder, 2003). Second,
changes have taken place in the way that juvenile courts dispose of referrals. Although
the numbers of youth transferred to the adult system has increased, the proportions of
youth diverted from formal processing have decreased much more significantly (from
50% of referrals in 1990 to 43% in 1999). Consequently, the proportion of delinquency
cases in which a petition was filed rose from 50% of all referrals in 1990 to 57% in 1999.
Although the greatest numerical increases in prosecuted offenses involved drug crimes,16
what is perhaps most telling is that the proportion of offenses handled formally increased
most for the least serious offenses (i.e., disorderly conduct and other public order
Minnesota and Pennsylvania have emerged as leaders in the use of family
group conferencing. The state of Vermont has made community reparation boards
a centerpiece of its juvenile justice system for youth who admit guilt. However,
Vermont’s program has recently been criticized for low levels of victim participation, the
composition of the boards (i.e., civic and business leaders) and, most important, for the
tendency to be more punitive than reparative.
Drug prosecutions increased 152% over the decade, consistent with the
“war on drugs.”
offenses), reflecting the tendency of the court to take even minor offenses more
seriously.17 The proportion of petitioned delinquency cases that resulted in formal
adjudications of delinquency (i.e., convictions) also rose over the decade, from 60% of
cases in 1990 to 66% in 1999. These increases occurred across all offense categories
(Puzzanchera et al., 2003). Of those adjudicated, a smaller percentage were committed to
out-of-home placements (32% in 1990, 24% in 1999). But that may reflect the fact that
institutions were already overcrowded. A much greater number of delinquents were
incarcerated in 1999 than in 1990 (an additional 30,000 youngsters), and more large
institutions (detention centers and training schools) were built to house them. In sum,
what has happened in the 1990s is that a much greater proportions of cases were referred
to, prosecuted in, and convicted by the juvenile court, and youth were incarcerated in
greater numbers. In terms of processing in the juvenile court, we see clear indications of
much greater formal social control than was the case in decades past.
The juvenile court‟s orientation toward its youth clientele is far less clear. There
are many indications that juvenile courts are beginning to converge with the criminal
courts in their emphasis on punishment. In the past two decades, legislatures in 27 states
have revised their juvenile codes to endorse either “punishment” or “accountability” as
objectives of the juvenile court. Twenty-six also endorse protection of the public safety
as an explicit juvenile justice goal. However, contrary to the “convergence hypothesis,”
legislatures have not abandoned the historical rehabilitative mission that has
distinguished the juvenile court from its criminal counterpart. A recent review of
juvenile code purpose clauses carried out by Sanborn and Salerno (2004, pp. 8-11)
revealed that all 50 jurisdictions maintain provisions that distinguish juvenile courts from
criminal courts in ways that are compatible with the juvenile court‟s traditional mission.
Thirty states continue to endorse the view that the court is to act “in the best interests of
the child.” Thirty-five states encourage the juvenile court to rehabilitate children at home
(Sanborn and Salerno, 2004, p.11). Twenty-four states indicate that the aim of the
juvenile court is to “preserve or strengthen the child‟s family or the child‟s ties to the
family” (Sanborn and Salerno, 204, p. 10). Thus, the law on the books suggests that most
states are trying to strike a balance between punitive and social welfare objectives. Of
course, the law on the books may not match the law in action.
Juvenile code purpose clauses are only one indication of current trends. There are
other indications that juvenile courts are beginning to resemble criminal courts. Dating
back to the “due process revolution” of the 1960s and 70s, juveniles were given
important procedural rights to which they had not previously been entitled (e.g., right to
notice, right to counsel, right to remain silent, the requirement that the charges be proven
beyond a reasonable doubt) which made court proceedings much more formal and
adversarial than they had been previously. Recent changes have not expanded rights, but
instead chipped away at special protections that youth have traditionally enjoyed. These
include the fact that juvenile court proceedings have historically been closed to the
public, that juvenile records have been confidential and later expunged, and that at least
non-serious juvenile offenders were not subject to photographing and fingerprinting. In
the 1990s, 47 states made juvenile records and proceedings more open (Snyder and
This trend is entirely consistent with adoption of the “graduated sanctions”
approach, about which we will have more to say shortly.
Sickmund, 1999, p. 89), 46 allowed juveniles to be photographed and fingerprinted, and
42 allowed the names (and sometimes the photographs and court records) of juveniles to
be released to the media (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999, p. 101).
Juvenile courts‟ sentencing policies have also undergone change. Although in
nearly every jurisdiction sentencing for the vast majority of offenders remains
discretionary, state legislatures have also passed determinate sentencing, guidelines-based
sentencing, and mandatory minimum sentencing for some offenses, all of which are
contrary to the offender-focused dispositions that have long been a hallmark of the
juvenile court. These are offense-driven, “one size fits all” sanctions that are imposed
without any consideration of individual needs and circumstances. For example,
legislatures in 31 jurisdictions have passed mandatory sentencing statutes for some
offenses (Sanborn and Salerno, 2004, p. 377). While most of these mandatory sentences
do not involve incarceration, 26 states have adopted minimum mandatory periods of
incarceration for certain violent crimes, weapons offenses, and repeat felony offenders
(Sanborn and Salerno, 2004, pp.377-380). Many of these statutes suffer from over
breadth and are subject to misapplication.18
Nationally, the trend is toward sentencing youth based on notions of punishment
and accountability, rather than rehabilitation. Significantly, the federal government has
endorsed a policy of “graduated sanctions” under which youth who have been
adjudicated delinquent receive sanctions “proportionate to the offense” to hold them
accountable for their actions and to prevent further law violations. This approach has
become the centerpiece of OJJDP‟s Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grants
program (JAIBG)–now renamed JABG–the largest single source of federal funding for
juvenile programs in the country.19 The program was revised in 2003, in part to make its
deterrent objectives more explicit. The new provisions indicate that although
participation in the graduated sanctions approach by individual courts is voluntary, states:
must encourage courts to participate. At a minimum, such systems should impose
sanctions for each offense; sanctions should escalate in intensity with each
subsequent, more serious charge; and the system should be sufficiently flexible to
allow for individualized sanctions and services appropriate for each offender”
(OJJDP, 2003, p.3).
In research conducted by one of the authors, a youth arrested for throwing a
piece of fruit at another was charged with “throwing a deadly missile,” another who stole
a statue of Ronald McDonald from a restaurant play area was charged with” “burglary of
an occupied structure,” and a youth who took a pickup truck for a brief “joyride” was
charged with “armed burglary” because a toolbox containing a hammer and screwdrivers
was found in the back of the truck. All of these charged offenses are Class A felonies
that carry lengthy maximum sentences.
Initiated in 1998 (Public Law 105-119), its annual funding level authorization is
500 million dollars. (Compare this to the Title V prevention program discussed earlier, which
has an annual funding allocation of 27 million dollars. While prevention is a priority,
punishment of past actions clearly takes precedence.
This language surely smacks of the criminalization of the juvenile court. JABG clearly
moves federal policy closer to a “pure punishment” approach. None of its 16 provisions
mentions “rehabilitation.” “help,” “development,” or „skills building”–language that had
been used in OJJDP publications describing its JAIBG predecessor (see, e.g., Beyer,
2003). The only hint of another agenda is found in a provision for “Risk and Needs
Assessment” that supports “programs to conduct risk and needs assessments of juvenile
offenders that facilitate early intervention and the provision of comprehensive services,
including mental health screening and treatment and substance abuse testing and
treatment” (OJJDP, 2003, p.2).
Other recent developments in the juvenile corrections area similarly suggest that a
punishment agenda has taken hold. The 1980s saw the establishment of boot camps, first
in the adult system (1983), then in the juvenile system (1985). Boot camps are short-term
(90-120 day) residential programs where inmates are subjected to military-style basic
training, including physical labor, regimented activity, and intense verbal degradation.
Some, but not all, include educational and counseling components. OJJDP supported the
boot camp initiative and funded an evaluation of three programs in three different states
that showed that boot camp participants had higher recidivism rates than controls (Peters
et al., 1997). Findings of ineffectiveness are consistent with evaluations of boot camps in
the adult system (see MacKenzie, 2000). Despite the negative results, and despite
allegations of staff abuse, boot camps have “caught on” in the same way that other
deterrence-based programs have. At least two states (Texas and Virginia) have
incorporated them into the continuum of graduated sanctions (Howell, 2003, p. 134).
Other trends in juvenile sentencing include electronic monitoring, random drug
testing, a shift in probation that makes it more surveillance- than service-oriented, and
simple incarceration. (Detention centers, which have little in the way of programming,
are increasingly being used as places to which youth are sentenced.) These are all
examples of get-tough reforms, and there is little evidence that any of them is effective.
Although it is clear that the United States has embraced retributive and deterrent
objectives for convicted juvenile offenders to a degree not seen since the 19th century,
there are some indications that we have not embraced this position single-mindedly. As
we have seen, the restorative justice movement, which is inconsistent with a narrow focus
on punishment, is gaining ground. In some areas of the country, restorative justice
principles and programs are being used at sentencing and as an adjunct to probation.20
There is also another movement afoot that may be even more important. More
specifically, in the midst of all the indicia of a criminalized juvenile justice that we have
discussed, there are signs of a revitalization of rehabilitation.
In the last 15 years, there have been major advances in evaluation research, and
both private foundations and the federal government have invested significant funding in
We see little potential for the transformation of juvenile justice around
principles of restorative justice. Existing bureaucracies (court, probation, prosecutorial, and
defense systems) are entrenched, and do not easily accommodate a central role for victims and
community members, nor relinquish their focus on adversariness and due process.
assessing the effectiveness of various forms of treatment.21 This research has produced
fairly consistent evidence that treatment-oriented programs, especially those that focus on
interpersonal skill development and parent/family interventions, are considerably more
effective than punishment-oriented ones (e.g., Lipsey and Wilson, 1998; Lipsey et al.,
2000). Research has identified effective nonresidential treatment programs for minor and
first-time offenders as well as effective residential interventions for serious and chronic
offenders. Some show very substantial reductions in recidivism, especially if programs
are well designed and faithfully implemented (Lipsey 1999a, 1999b). In addition to
Lipsey‟s research, which utilizes meta-analysis, the Center for the Study and Prevention
of Violence has played a major role in renewing interest in treatment. Center staff have
reviewed individual evaluations of rehabilitation programs throughout the country that
meet rigorous scientific criteria (i.e., the evaluation must use an experimental design and
include at least 1-year of follow-up). They have identified a number of “Blueprint
Programs” that have produced statistically significant reductions in recidivism and that
have been replicated in at least one other site. (These include multisystemic therapy, life
skills training, and multidimensional treatment foster care.)
It is possible that, at the local level, thousands (or even tens of thousands) of
rehabilitation programs exist despite policymakers‟ determination to implement punitive
policies. Unfortunately, because most states and the federal government do not maintain
program inventories or conduct surveys to determine what kinds of programs are
operating and where, it is impossible to determine the extent of rehabilitative
programming in the United States today.
It is still too early to tell, but the punitive tide may be turning. Opinion polls
show that the public continues to support treatment for juvenile offenders. In addition,
public officials have begun to express real worry about how they are going to manage the
financial costs of America‟s “imprisonment binge” (Austin, ). In combination with the
research evidence showing the substantial advantages of rehabilitative programs over
punitive ones, these considerations may support a revival of interest in returning to
traditional core principles of juvenile justice.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS AND POLICIES
In his seminal book on American street gangs Klein (1995) laments the fact that
thirty years of gang intervention and programming have little to show for what works.
The situation is not quite that bad with regard to the impact of programs and policies in
American Juvenile Justice, but almost. Lundman (2001:11) notes the American tendency
to choose what he calls “cut-through” programs, programs that ignore root causes of
Interest in rehabilitation waned in the 1970s, following the release of the widely
publicized “Martinson Report” (Martinson 1974; Lipton et al 1975). Critics of the report
responded that the negative results could be explained by methodological problems and weak
evaluations, rather than by the absence of effective treatments, but these responses–and even
the subsequent retraction of the Martinson Report‟s conclusion by its authors–fell on deaf
ears. Instead, the idea of rehabilitation was increasingly viewed with skepticism. Subsequent
increases in juvenile crime, especially juvenile violence, contributed to the view that treatment
delinquency and are seen as “quick fixes.” This predilection for such cut-through
programs has led the United States to spend large amounts of money on programs such as
DARE, Zero-tolerance programs, Scared Straight Programs, Boot Camps, large custodial
programs, and curfew and truancy interventions. Evaluation results for these programs
have been reviewed extensively by Howell (2003) and found wanting for positive results.
IV. Policies that have Improved Prevention/Intervention and
Respect For Individual Rights
Tremendous advances in program evaluation research have taken place in the last
twenty years. As a consequence, we have a great deal more evidence of the efficacy of
prevention and intervention strategies, and can be much more confident in the results.
We now know a great deal about ineffective policies and programs, as well as those that
produce meaningful beneficial effects. This is not to say, however, that policy makers
have looked to social science research for guidance. Many ineffective programs continue
because the general public continues to believe that they are effective or because they
serve retributive aims in an era that is highly punishment oriented. Effective programs
may not be popular, or they may be implemented only sparsely among a few
communities. Although the United States does not have national juvenile justice policy,
there is much that could be done at the federal level to support the proliferation of
effective strategies (e.g., by making funds available for communities that want to
implement them). However, the current administration has been far more supportive of
fairly simplistic and inexpensive punitive programs (that tend to be less effective) than of
holistic and generally more costly strategies aimed at providing family intervention,
education and training, social skills training, and social support. As important as it is to
have good evaluation and research to use as a foundation for programs, it is equally
important to have the political will and courage to use these results for effective
programming. To date, America seldom shows that will.
There are two comments we offer in closing to address the issue of increased
respect for the rights of juveniles. First, the United States is one of two nations in the
world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
(1989). That failure speaks volumes about the status of children in America and the
respect that the government holds for those children. Second, the last decade of policy,
legislative and program changes have been overwhelmingly punitive, to the exclusion of
considerations of the rights and welfare of juveniles. If Tom Bernard is right that
juvenile justice moves from cycles of punitiveness to consideration of the welfare of
children, the United States should be on the verge of a major change in the orientation of
its juvenile justice system. We are not that optimistic.
Ainsworth, Janet E. 1999. Re-Imagining Childhood and Reconstructing the Legal
Order: The Case for Abolishing the Juvenile Court. Pp. 8-12 in Barry Feld (Ed.)
Readings in Juvenile Justice Administration. New York: Oxford.
Allen, Francis. (1981). The Rehabilitative Ideal. New Haven, CT: Yale.
Bernard, Thomas J. (1992). The Cycle of Juvenile Justice. New York: Oxford.
Bazemore, Gordon, and Mark S. Umbreit. A comparison of four restorative
justice conferencing models. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Bazemore, Gordon, and Lode Walgrave. (1999). “Introduction: Restorative
Justice and the International Juvenile Justice Crisis.” Pp. 1-13 in Gordon
Bazemore and Lode Walgrave (Eds.), Restorative Juvenile Justice: Repairing the
Harm of Youth Crime. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.
Butts, Jeffrey A., and Daniel P. Mears. 2001. “Reviving Juvenile Justice in a
Get-Tough Era.” Youth & Society 33:169-198.
Butts, Jeffrey, Dean Hoffman, and Janeen Buck. (1999). “Teen courts in the
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