Plenary Sessions: The Big Picture

In addition to the variety of stimulating workshops, six plenary sessions offered conference participants the opportunity to pause and listen to thoughtful presentations on issues of major concern in the field of juvenile justice. Attorney General Janet Reno addressed the progress being made toward a balanced approach to effective youth policy. Other distinguished speakers and panel members at the plenary sessions and lunchtime keynote addresses included County Attorney James Backstrom, Dakota County (MN) Attorney's Office; U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Lynne A. Battaglia; James Bell, Youth Law Center, San Francisco, CA: Dr. Lonise P. Bias; OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik; Dr. Alfred Blumstein, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; Prince George's County (MD) Executive Wayne Curry; Beaverton (OR) Police Department Sergeant Gary Dodson; Dr. Delbert S. Elliott, Director, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO; Dr. Barry C. Feld, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Chief Judge Glenda Hatchett, Fulton County (GA) Juvenile Court; Dorothy Travis Johnson, Administrator, Lincoln Center of the Arts, Milwaukee, WI; Connecticut State Representative Michael P. Lawlor; Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs, Laurie Robinson; Coalition of Spanish-Speaking Mental Health Organizations Senior Policy Advisor Anna Rivas-Beck; Baltimore (MD) Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; Secretary Stuart O. Simms, Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice; Beaverton (OR) Youth Peer Court member Matt Smith; Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; National Institute of Justice Director Jeremy Travis; Deputy Commissioner of the Philadelphia (PA) Division of Juvenile Justice Services Jesse E. Williams, Jr.; and OJJDP Deputy Administrator John J. Wilson.

News Anchor Susan Kidd, WRC-TV/NBC4, Washington, DC, and Maureen Bunyan, President, Bunyan Communications, Inc., Washington, DC, served as moderators for two of the plenary sessions. Luncheon invocations were provided by Rabbi Paul Caplan, Beth Am Synagogue, Baltimore, MD, and Leon M. West, Director, National Anti-Drug/Violence Campaign, Congress of National Black Churches.

The abstracts that make up this article cannot do justice to the impact of the plenary sessions, but they attempt at least to capture the core of the stirring messages offered by the speakers. Praise for these sessions ranged from admiration of the Attorney General's policy direction based on sound research to appreciation of Dr. Bias's informative and inspirational talk on the drug challenge, a session described by one conference participant as "pulling things together."

State of the Nation and Juvenile Crime

Although the public perceives juvenile violence as widespread, there is little evidence to substantiate the depth of this impression. The average citizen's fear of being victimized by violent juvenile crime far exceeds the likelihood of such victimization when viewed in the context of recorded crime rates.

What has taken place over the past 15 years is a change in the lethal outcomes of violent youth crime. The fear of high juvenile crime rates does not arise as much from more youth committing crimes but more so from too many guns in the hands of a small percentage of youth--guns put there, in part, by the dramatic rise in drug markets fueled by the surge in the use of crack cocaine in the early and mid-1980's.

Responding to the public's demand to "get tough on crime," policymakers have instituted judicial waivers of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system, enacted stricter gun control laws and policies, established boot camps,3 and adopted community policing. The effects of such initiatives in reducing youth drug use and violent juvenile crime remain to be seen.

While the focus of juvenile justice has shifted to a considerable extent to rigid enforcement, evidence shows that behavior modification, cognitive behavior (thinking about the consequences of one's actions), family training, positive peer groups, and mentoring have proven effective in deterring juvenile crime.

The time has come to pursue a mixed portfolio. The focus must shift in several ways: to intervening with youth at an earlier age to prevent delinquency, to relying less on treatment programs and putting greater emphasis on changing the milieu in which youth develop, to informing policymakers about programs and practices that work, and to ending the glorification of violence as a form of entertainment. Programs to prevent and reduce juvenile violence and victimization must be strengthened, and they must be evaluated. The challenge is to reintegrate reform into the community. Our greatest hope lies not in formal programs alone but, ultimately, in caring and committed citizens who give generously of their own resources -- including their time -- to reach out and help others. Such initiatives, the glue of any society, must be supported.

Critical Juvenile Justice Issues at the Federal, State, and Local Levels: Policymakers Respond

Guns, drug money, violence, poverty, and racism are major challenges confronting policymakers who are caught up in today's juvenile justice debate. Beyond overcoming these overwhelming factors that contribute to juvenile crime, young people need the support, the supervision, and the example of nurturing adults to avoid going too far astray.

Despite the political popularity of increased emphasis on incarceration spawned by public fear of falling prey to violent juvenile crime -- fears fueled by lurid tabloid headlines -- it is far more sensible to develop and implement programs that work across an entire range of interventions. Recognizing this reality, some State legislatures are shifting from adopting the quick fix of incarceration to also pursuing such long-term solutions as deterrence, prevention, and early intervention. At the same time, conscientious policymakers are demanding increased governmental accountability to the taxpayer and establishing stringent regulations that require State and local agencies to report on how funds are being used and what results are being achieved.

The devastating impact of juvenile crime on society demands cooperation at the Federal, State, and local levels to help America's youth. Important ingredients in the recipe for success include community planning and involvement that feature mentors and other volunteers, early identification/intervention programs that target youth who may be at risk of developing future problems, use of tactical police squads to disrupt drug dealing, and media and public educational campaigns informing the public about effective programs that prevent and deter juvenile crime. The juvenile justice community needs to borrow a successful tactic used by community police -- the "broken window" strategy. In law enforcement, this means that at the first sign of deterioration in a community, whether broken windows or other blight, police and community leaders take aggressive action to stem the tide of decay. Similarly, when young people give off warning signs of being "broken," those signs must be treated immediately, not ignored until they escalate into serious delinquency.

The Federal Government's role in this endeavor is crucial -- in cutting across jurisdictional boundaries and through bureaucratic red tape to establish effective partnerships, in determining and publicizing what works, in offering technical assistance and training to juvenile justice practitioners, and in providing seed money for promising programs.

The Role of the Community in Responding to Juvenile Delinquency

The community is a tremendous and largely untapped resource for confronting the causes and correlates of juvenile crime and developing long-term strategies that offer lasting remedies to delinquency. The question of what a community can do to prevent or reduce the problem of juvenile delinquency before it destroys the quality of life in the community can be answered by a broad array of potentially successful strategies.

One strategy involves community policing, with local law enforcement working within communities to identify local problems and priorities and develop and carry out effective solutions. Another strategy is to implement the juvenile justice community model by placing judges, probation officers, and other juvenile justice practitioners directly in the community so that they can see the local resources available to youth and their families firsthand.

Communities concerned about combating youth crime can also consider approaches such as talking about juvenile justice issues in human terms that persuade the listener of their importance, intervening early to end the cycle of family violence before children perpetuate it through subsequent violence of their own, helping families become more self-sufficient, and performing ongoing and rigorous evaluations of promising programs and disseminating the data widely in order to facilitate effective replication.

Whatever strategy a community chooses to pursue, if it is to succeed, the entire community -- families, schools, churches, public agencies, social service organizations, and businesses -- must be involved. This includes the justice system, which cannot afford to be an ivory tower apart from the rest of the community. It must instead forge alliances in this most important challenge. A livable, safe, and thriving community must be committed, courageous, and competent -- and willing to take risks to save its at-risk children and their families.

Has the Juvenile Court Outlived Its Usefulness?

The nature and pattern of juvenile delinquency are constantly changing, presenting new complexities to challenge the juvenile justice system and communities across the Nation. After more than a century of existence, the juvenile court has become the focus of a debate over whether it remains a relevant or justifiable option for responding to juvenile crime.

Confronted by nearly 20 years of rising juvenile arrest rates for violent crime, extensive media coverage of the issue, and public perception of a growing population of hardcore juvenile criminals, many States are responding with a "get tough" approach to juvenile offenders. A consequence of this new approach has been the polarization of ideas on the future of the juvenile court process. Proponents of the latest reform proposals espouse a philosophy of retribution and punishment -- insisting that the juvenile court and its sanctions do not deter juvenile crime. Meanwhile, juvenile court supporters seek individualized, offender-based sentencing supported by a well-developed aftercare component that involves a spectrum of prevention support services for the young person and the family. They argue that the vast majority of juvenile offenders do not become serious, violent, or repeat offenders -- that, in fact, nearly 60 percent never return after their first referral.

In a lively exchange of ideas during a special teleconference, the question of the juvenile court's usefulness elicited a broad spectrum of responses. As divergent as the answers appeared, common denominators emerged:

  • The conviction that the solution to youth violence lies within the community.

  • The commitment that public safety must come first and that victims are a priority.

  • The hope that the juvenile justice system can provide the support that communities need to make a difference.

  • The consensus that, for cases of child abuse and neglect, a specialized court is still needed to protect the interests of these child victims.

The question then becomes -- not, is the juvenile court still relevant, but--how can the juvenile justice system most effectively and efficiently provide the support communities need to prevent and deter juvenile delinquency?

The Drug Challenge: A Reason for Hope

The drug challenge that faces our Nation and its youth appears insurmountable at times. However, a number of responses coalescing within the Federal Government may offer legitimate reasons for hope. A solid and substantial base of research demonstrates that treatment works and that it works even better under criminal justice supervision.

Break the Cycle Between Drugs and Crime, a public health program developed by a consortium of agencies under the supervision of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, asks this question: What would happen if the entire criminal justice system were to assume responsibility to energize the activities of its agencies to reduce the level of drug abuse by those who have passed through the justice system? To test the concept, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) awarded a $1 million grant to the city of Birmingham, AL, to organize its criminal justice system around this model and awarded a separate grant to evaluate its impact.

Another NIJ activity is ADAM, the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program. Under this program, NIJ collaborates with universities and other research organizations to interview arrestees in 23 cities quarterly, asking them questions about drug use, gang involvement, access to guns, public health issues, and access to treatment. All responses are confidential and used solely for research purposes. Tests are taken to measure levels of drug use. The program is scheduled for expansion to all cities with populations of more than 200,000 over the next 3 years.

As valuable as these Federal initiatives are, however, the power to overcome the scourge of drugs lies squarely within our communities. Every community resident has untapped potential strength and ability to bring about change. It is essential that this potential be unleashed to support America's young people and to prepare them to be leaders for the 21st century. In Dr. Bias' words, every young person in the United States is "reachable, teachable, lovable, and saveable." Those who work with and care about children must help to defeat the lure of drugs, showing young people the beauty of self-respect, respect for others, and respect for positive and legal authority. There are no quick fixes, so all members of the community must be advocates for long-term solutions, beginning with prevention and early intervention programs and activities.

Implications for the 21st Century

The critical juvenile justice issues that will influence the formulation of youth policy into the 21st century involve three major themes. The first is the issue of youth -- their needs, their strengths, and their role in taking on the problem of youth violence and victimization. The second theme concerns the community -- the institution of community, the strengthening of community, the need to connect the community to the juvenile justice system so it can be more effective, and the necessity to argue clearly and forcefully for the role of the community in addressing the problems of juvenile offending and victimization. The development and implementation of an effective local strategy for juvenile justice reform must involve all elements of the community because all have a stake in its success. The third theme encompasses the formal juvenile justice system, its successes and failures, its strengths and weaknesses, its role in working with youth, its future, its response to juvenile offending and victimization, and its connection to other institutions within the community. The juvenile justice system must respond to the needs of everyone in the community, including both victims and offenders.

The programs devised for shaping solutions to juvenile delinquency must involve youth in their development, and this involvement will be most effective when there is mutual trust, a strong line of communication, and spirited and committed coordinators and advisers. In providing opportunities for youth participation, it is not enough to involve the "best and the brightest" in mediation, conflict resolution, teen courts, and other programs. Youth must be recruited from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and abilities, including representatives from those young people who need these programs the most.

For juvenile justice policy to meet present and future challenges, a common ground must be found that is rooted in rational debate, methodical analysis, and wisdom gained from experience. Past mistakes and shortcomings need to be acknowledged. Well-designed programs were often poorly implemented, and few programs included outcome-based research or any research at all to inform policy decisions. Too often, the juvenile justice system focused on the rights of offenders without sufficient regard to their victims and communities. Now is the time for a balanced approach to the administration of juvenile justice -- an approach that considers the concerns, interests, and fears of the people who are caught up in the system and who should be part of the process for developing solutions to juvenile crime. That balanced approach needs to factor in a recognition of three important realities: moral, political, and spiritual realities. The quality of the Nation's future is at stake.

3 For an indepth look at boot camps for juveniles, see M. Peters, D. Thomas, and C. Zamberlan, Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders (Program Summary), Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 1997.

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