A separate justice system for juveniles has been in existence in the USA for over 100 years. It was originally meant to act as a social welfare system with two aims: to protect delinquents from the corrupting influence of seasoned adult offenders, and to provide delinquents with guidance and treatment necessary to make the often difficult transition through adolescence to become law abiding adults.²
More than 400,000 juveniles, about two-thirds of all those apprehended by the police, were placed in jails or detention homes in 1965. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), it is not recommended that the detention rate exceed ten per cent of the total number of juvenile offenders apprehended.¹ This high incarceration rate of juveniles brings into question: is a high juvenile detention rate necessary because of the seriousness of the offense? Or are the practices simply a result of society's failure to implement a non-punitive system of juvenile justice?¹
Juvenile offenders are often placed in detention centers. Detention is usually defined as "the temporary care of children who require secure custody of their own or the community's protection in physically restricting facilities pending court disposition.¹
The reasons for detaining a child are most often described as¹:
- Children who will run away during the period the court is studying their case;
- Children who must be held for another jurisdiction;
- Children who will commit an offense dangerous to themselves or the community before court disposition.
Research indicates that an effective juvenile system reinforces desirable behavior. It communicates expectations and rules, and minimizes opportunities for youth to engage in problematic behavior.³ An effective system works to build positive relationships between troubled youth and positive, caring, well-trained adults. It minimizes the congregation of juvenile offenders and separates high-risk youth from lower-risk youth.³
Factors limiting effectiveness of juvenile justice systems
Most systems are unable to ensure that at-risk youth and their families get effective assistance before the youth enters the system. Primary problems that endangered youth face are³:
- Mental health;
- Substance abuse.
These youth often get no or non-evidenced-based early treatment for these problems. All evidence points to incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences, and mandatory waivers to adult court being unhelpful in the youth's long-term success.³ Putting at-risk youth into more punitive, restrictive, and long-term environment goes against everything we know about the development of the young brain, and robs them of important opportunities to gain skills and behaviors.³
Alternatives to the system
There are a variety of actions that can be taken to better the success of at-risk youth³:
- Ensure that effective interventions are available before they encounter the justic system;
- Reduce reliance on incarceration. Instead, provide a full continuum of research-based, effective juvenile diversion options;
- Focus juvenile justice responses and interventions on individuals' actual risk factors for criminal behavior and their need, rather than simply focusing on the crime that was committed;
- Implement evidence-based rehabilitation and treatment practices for incarcerated youth.
Photo sources: Center on Early Adolescence
1. Elyce Ferster, Edith Snethen, and Thomas Courtless. 1969. Juvenile Detention: Protection, Prevention or Punishment? Retrieved May 1, 2014, from http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2005&context=flr
3. Center on Early Adolescence. Building a More Effective Juvenile Justice System. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from https://www.earlyadolescence.org/juvenile_justice_system