Recent advances in scientific understanding of adolescent brain development should be more fully incorporated into juvenile justice system policies and practices, according to a report released in November by The National Academies' National Research Council. The report is the outgrowth of a 2-year independent study of the juvenile justice system commissioned by OJJDP.
Research has shown that neurobiological processes in the developing brain play a large role in the impulsiveness, susceptibility to peer pressure, and difficulty in assessing long-term consequences that characterize adolescence. These behaviors generally are transient and recede as individuals mature into adulthood. The findings have significant implications for the juvenile justice system. Adolescent offenders are different than adult offenders and are less culpable than adult offenders. This knowledge challenges the assumptions underlying the "get tough on crime" legislation of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw a rapid increase in the incarceration of youth and in the transfer of youth to adult court.
Today, the majority of youth in the United States are locked up for nonviolent offenses like drug, property, and status offenses notwithstanding indications that the experience of confinement may have long-lasting, negative effects. The Research Council's report emphasizes that the three most important components of healthy psychological development for adolescents are the involvement of a supportive adult authority figure, association with prosocial peers, and activities that encourage autonomous decisionmaking. These three necessities are lacking in most facilities that confine youth.
A developmental approach that emphasizes positive youth development rather than a reliance on detention and incarceration and other harsh forms of punishment is compatible with the juvenile justice system's goals of holding youth accountable for their actions, preventing further offending, and treating youth fairly.
The momentum for juvenile justice reform efforts will be maintained primarily at the state, local, and tribal levels. Most of the National Research Council's report focuses on challenges faced by schools, courts, and law enforcement and social service agencies. It also emphasizes the importance of OJJDP's support and leadership, particularly in the areas of research, training and technical assistance, and advocacy at the national level for the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system.
To read the report, "Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach," visit the National Research Council's Web site.