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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2



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Juvenile Justice Reform

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Aligning the System With
the Science

Crimes committed by adolescents can often be attributed to the kind of risk-taking behavior that is a normal part of growing up. Adolescents generally lack self-regulation, are more sensitive to peer pressure and other outside influences, and have a poorer ability than adults to consider consequences when making decisions. The resulting actions can lead to adolescents' putting themselves or others in harm's way. But for most offenses, institutional confinement is not a punishment that fits the crime.

A recent National Research Council report says that while adolescents should be held responsible for their actions, accountability practices in the juvenile justice system shouldn't be modeled after criminal punishments for adults. Instead, states should design juvenile justice policies around the science on adolescent brains and behaviors.

Healthy adolescent development requires an involved parent figure, peer groups that value positive socialization and academic success, and activities that strengthen critical thinking skills. The juvenile justice system's current reliance on confinement and control deprives adolescents of these important resources. It can also undermine an adolescent's respect for the law and reinforce deviant behavior, undercutting the goals of promoting social maturity and preventing reoffending.

Community-based programs are more likely than institutional confinement to reach these goals, the report says. Juvenile offenders can take responsibility for their actions and make amends to individuals and society while participating in positive activities. Community programs can also steer youth away from the system by reducing risk factors, and they can be tailored to suit an individual's needs. Many such programs have the added benefit of being more cost-effective than confinement.

Juvenile offenders are more likely to accept responsibility for their actions if they believe the system is treating them fairly. Fairness includes being represented by trained counsel, participating in the process, perceiving that the system is nondiscriminatory, and being given the chance to understand the proceedings before any legal action is taken.

The juvenile justice system should also take steps to reduce racial disparities in its processes, the report says. Minorities are disproportionately represented, especially at the arrest and detention stages and for certain crimes, and are more likely to face harsh punishment and remain in the system longer than white youths for the same crimes.

The report also recommends that juvenile records remain confidential and not follow adolescent offenders into adulthood, giving them the opportunity to lead successful lives. -- Lauren Rugani


Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2012, approx. 420 pp.; ISBN 0-309-27890-2; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $64.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies.

The committee was chaired by Robert Johnson, dean, New Jersey Medical School, Newark. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences