Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

Chapter IV
Observations Concerning State Juvenile Justice Reform

Although State juvenile justice reform initiatives and policies vary from State to State, several common themes characterize State responses to juvenile delinquency and violent youth behavior. Further, the opportunities and obstacles encountered by States that have undertaken comprehensive juvenile justice reform efforts can provide useful lessons for other States looking to undertake broad juvenile code revision, or for those looking to amend and revise very specific pieces of legislation governing juvenile justice in the State.

Several observations or themes can be generalized from the research and analysis done by National Criminal Justice Association staff concerning the initiation, formulation, and implementation of juvenile justice legislation in the States. The most visible legislative impetus is the perception of juvenile offenders as acting ruthlessly and without remorse. The resulting fear and anger over violent juvenile crime has caused a shift of the overall purpose of many juvenile codes and juvenile courts to one focusing on the accountability and punishment of young offenders. This emphasis replaces or complements the former, more rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice policy common to most States' laws since the inception of a separate system of juvenile justice nearly 100 years ago.

Although recent juvenile justice reform often focuses on this more punitive objective through "get tough" policies -- such as waiver to adult criminal court, enhanced penalties for firearms offenses, and open records -- States also have enacted legislation that facilitates early intervention services for juvenile offenders who are acting out or have exhibited delinquent behavior of a less serious or violent nature. Initiatives such as parental responsibility laws and the development of graduated sanctions programs are an attempt by policymakers to address errant behavior of delinquent youth before it becomes problematic or violent in nature. In other words, the focus on and media attention paid to so-called violent juvenile "superpredators" has raised the issue of juvenile justice on a general level and has exposed gaps in the way offenders at all stages of delinquency are treated in State juvenile justice systems.

Further, States are moving toward curbing juvenile crime by cutting across agency, institutional, and jurisdictional boundaries. Although States differ in their political, social, and economic climates, most are responding to changes in patterns of juvenile crime and violence by creating policies that in- corporate many of the following core concepts and institutions: strengthening and preserving families; taking steps to facilitate agency collaboration in the treatment and punishment of young offenders; encouraging local responses and community-based solutions to juvenile violence and victimization; and ensuring accountability and tough sanctions for those juveniles who do commit crimes of violence.

Whether States enact single juvenile justice initiatives or undertake comprehensive revisions of their juvenile codes, policymakers are often treading in uncharted waters. Many of the system reforms being undertaken, whether traditional or innovative, are based on little evidence to support their efficacy. Thus, potentially, there are 50 miniature laboratories in which juvenile justice policy is being tried and tested. Programs designed with evaluation in mind will contribute the most to the future of juvenile justice policy development by determining what works and what does not.


Several lessons can be learned and cautions should be heeded when policymakers consider revising juvenile justice legislation. One lesson relates to the impact that a new program will have on the juvenile justice system as a whole. Changes made to one part of the system will not exist in isolation, but will have an impact on the delivery of juvenile justice services for all who have contact with it. This phenomenon, which is compounded by limited programs, services, and budgets, may mean that appropriations to pay for a new program may come at the expense of other juvenile justice programs. For example, how does the enactment of a law holding parents responsible for the delinquent behavior of their children affect probation caseloads? Does the implementation of a curfew ordinance diminish available law enforcement resources and personnel? These and similar questions should be addressed in order to avoid the negative consequences of well-intentioned policy initiatives. On a similar note, policymakers should be aware that a comprehensive change in juvenile justice policy or law will affect not only the juvenile justice system but other State agencies whose primary responsibilities are to provide services to children and families.

Aside from resource obstacles and unintended consequences, logistics, systems inconsistencies, and administrative burdens may impede the implementation of well-designed legislation. States enacting comprehensive juvenile justice reform legislation should consider the practices already in place and calculate whether changes to them are necessary, how difficult the changes will be, and what new administrative options are available. In addition, policymakers should be aware that the actions of other players, especially those in the juvenile justice system, affect the implementation and use of sanction options. For example, it is important for policymakers to draft legislation broadly enough to encourage juvenile court judges to use their discretion in determining whether to impose a specific sanction or, conversely, to narrowly construct a statute to support a more consistent use of certain dispositions.

Further, States need more effective tools for determining what implementation challenges are inherent in juvenile justice reform and administration. Much of the information available to State policymakers focuses on the types of policies being initiated. Much less information is available on what works, why it works, how it came to be effective, and what factors States need to consider in replicating it. By looking beyond policy initiation to the formulation of programs and the implementation and evaluation of existing policies, States may be better able to decide what types of juvenile justice prevention, sanction, and treatment programs should be made available to the youth of the State or jurisdiction.

One tool that States have available, in the absence of empirical analysis, is to study existing juvenile justice policies and initiatives in other States. States can look at initiatives previously undertaken in other States when formulating new juvenile justice policies to familiarize themselves with what works, what does not, and what types of obstacles may interfere with policy implementation. Further, the preliminary blueprint provided by looking at other State initiatives can be honed and modified to fit local environments and the specific needs of the State. The National Conference of State Legislatures, for example, provides information to State legislators on trends in State legislation, innovative and effective programs and strategies, and available resources at the Federal level.


State efforts to combat youth violence and delinquency have taken many forms. From prevention to deterrence through tough, accountability-based sanctions to innovative blended sentencing options, policymakers are searching for programs and policies that effectively stop juveniles from becoming lifelong criminals. Efforts to facilitate an immediate and appropriate response to juvenile violence and delinquency have resulted in many States enacting legislation to promote a continuum of services to juvenile offenders, although the efforts have been piecemeal in some States, because not all States have passed laws or possess the necessary funding to offer a full range of services to juvenile offenders.

Many States in the past few legislative sessions have made dramatic changes to their juvenile codes, with a policy emphasis on promoting accountability of youth offenders, while devising new programs to intervene effectively in the lives of delinquent youth. The case studies from Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, and Oregon reflect the opportunities that abound through comprehensive reform initiatives and the difficulties in formulating and implementing new policies to have an impact on the incidence of juvenile violence and delinquency.

State lawmakers need current information about the challenges and difficulties in legislating programs and policies to combat youth crime. Consideration of the political, budgetary, and administrative obstacles and opportunities present in the milieu in which these critical policy decisions are made is crucial to ensuring that services and sanctions for delinquent youth are both appropriate and reflective of the legislative policies and goals that States are seeking to achieve. This report has supplied some of that information.

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