Adolescence is a time of rapid, often unbalanced, neurological and behavioral growth that places youth and their needs and development in sharp contrast with adults and children. To effectively meet the challenges of juvenile offending and reduce recidivism, states and localities must move away from a justice model focused on punishment and instead adopt a model that acknowledges the changes that youthful offenders are undergoing and fosters positive development and accountability.
These are among the major findings and recommendations contained in Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, a study undertaken by the National Research Council (NRC) at the request of OJJDP. NRC is operated jointly by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Engineering.
In 2010, OJJDP commissioned NRC to review recent advances in behavioral and neuroscience research and to draw out the implications of this knowledge for juvenile justice reform. Furthermore, OJJDP asked the council to assess the new generation of reform activities occurring in the United States and to examine OJJDP’s role in carrying out its statutory mission and its potential role in supporting scientifically based reform efforts.
On July 26, 2013, three members of the NRC-convened Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform presented a summary of their findings at a quarterly meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Dr. Robert L. Johnson, Committee Chair and Director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Rutgers UniversityNew Jersey Medical School; Dr. Edward Mulvey, Director of the Law and Psychiatry Program at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Gladys Carrion, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, spoke before the Coordinating Council. The meeting was chaired by Associate Attorney General Tony West and OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee.
“What we are talking about here is a cultural shift in how we think about juvenile justice,” said Associate Attorney General West in his opening remarks. “The findings and recommendations of this NAS report are closely aligned with this council’s ongoing work related to the Defending Childhood Initiative, as well as major Department of Justice priorities, such as addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and enhancing youth access to qualified legal counsel.”
“We at OJJDP believe that this report’s findings and recommendations can transform how policymakers, practitioners, and researchers address the needs of children who are at risk for involvement or who are already involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Administrator Listenbee.
In his introductory remarks to the presentations, Dr. Johnson said that the “juvenile justice system as it now exists does not respect human development.” Over his 40-year career, he added, he has worked with many young people who had run afoul of the law. “I have come to understand that the system often makes them worse,” he said.
Adolescence is a time when the brain is busy “pruning” lesser used synaptic connections and strengthening stronger, more often used synaptic connections. “This is a time in the brain’s development when the pathways of communication get wired correctly,” said Dr. Mulvey. “The process does not occur all at once. The different lobes of the brain mature at different times.”
The frontal lobe, which is home to judgment, impulse control, emotions, reasoning, and problem solving, is the last part of the brain to mature. This happens when a person is about 24 years old. As a result, Dr. Mulvey said, adolescents differ from adults in three important ways:
To support positive development, adolescents need the following in their lives: a strong, caring parent or parent figure; positive peers; and opportunities for positive decisionmaking and critical thinking. “A protective environment that families can provide promotes positive risk taking in adolescents,” Dr. Mulvey said. He added that juvenile justice interventions can play a crucial role in fostering positive development in a youth as well as ensuring public safety and that interventions that hold offenders accountable for their actions will promote healthy moral development and legal socialization if youth perceive them to be fair. Conversely, interventions that youthful offenders perceive to be unfair will foster further social disaffection and antisocial behavior.
“The goals of the juvenile justice system should be to promote accountability, ensure fairness of treatment, and prevent recidivism,” said Commissioner Carrion. “We should use confinement rarely and not for punishment,” she said.
Gladys Carrion, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services
“How kids think about the system is important,” she added. “DMC (disproportionate minority contact) increases their sense of unfairness. Most adolescents in the juvenile justice system are not serious offenders, and prison hurts them rather than helps them. There is no payoff for extended incarceration of most adolescent offenders. In most cases, they should be held only long enough so they can receive services.”
According to the commissioner, the adoption of a developmental approach to youth programs, policies, and practices at the federal, state, and local levels is a long-term process that will require the formation of multistakeholder task forces, the strengthening of OJJDP’s role and voice, further research, and improved data. “We need to get rid of things that don’t work, and we need more and better data on kids in the system,” Commissioner Carrion said. She added that system reform will require many partners who will take ownership of the youth in the justice system. “The juvenile justice system is the system of last resort for these children,” she said. “In many cases, juvenile justice does not have access to other supports found in the mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, developmental disabilities, and housing systems. This needs to change.”
Commissioner Carrion stated that during her 6 years as head of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services, her agency has closed 21 facilities. She shared that it costs the state $262,000 a year to house a child in the juvenile justice system, so the savings have been substantial.
“In New York, 99 percent of our agency’s budget goes for facilities,” she said. “We have used the money we have saved to narrow the front door into the system so that only the children who pose a risk enter the system.” In turn, the state has used the savings to fund alternatives to detention, develop improved assessment tools, improve conditions of confinement for those youth in the system, and streamline probation. “We try to incentivize what works,” she added, explaining that her agency has adopted a developmental approach in its handling of youth in the system. The state has shortened the length of stay in confinement for youth and has hired therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists to work with youth.
Clare Anderson, Deputy Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that her agency’s findings on child development and trauma are consistent with the NRC findings. “Kids in the child welfare system have quite similar experiences as children in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “What we have found is these kids’ brains develop to survive in a hostile world.”
Quoting from the report, Administrator Listenbee highlighted the potiential detrimental outcomes of pursuing the current course, which include "negative interactions between youth and justice system officials, increased disrespect for the law and legal authority, and the reinforcement of a deviant identity and social disaffection."
Alternatively, "If the procedures for holding youth accountable for their offending and the services provided to them are designed and operated in a developmentally informed way, this approach will promote positive legal socialization, reinforce a prosocial identity, and reduce reoffending," said Administrator Listenbee.
The report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, is available online.