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date: 03 December 2020

Juvenile Justice: Overviewfree

  • Rosemary C. SarriRosemary C. SarriUniversity of Michigan, Emerita


The juvenile justice system was established with the 1899 founding in Chicago of the Juvenile Court, an institution that spread to all the states in a short period of time. The history, organization, structure, and operations of the system are described along with its growth along with increasing Among the key issues examined are: gender, overrepresentation of children of color, placement of mentally ill and abused or neglected children, human rights, and re-integration of juvenile offenders after their returning home.

Updated in this version

Article updated to include significant US Supreme Court decisions that emphasized the lesser culpability of children and their amenability to rehabilitation. Bibliography expanded and statistics updated to reflect recent research.

The establishment of the juvenile court in Illinois in 1899 led to the development of the United States juvenile justice system, which was mandated to provide for the processing, adjudication, and rehabilitation of juveniles charged with criminal violations, as well as for the care and treatment of abused and neglected children. Social advocates such as Jane Addams, as well as crusading judges such as Ben Lindsey (Tanenhaus, 2002) established the system, emphasizing care and treatment rather than punishment and control. The response to this new social invention was rapid, and the juvenile court spread throughout the United States in less than twenty-five years. Since that time, it has become a model for the legal processing of children in much of the developed world. Although the juvenile court still retains jurisdiction over the processing of abuse and neglect cases, most of the processing care and supervision of those cases lie within the child welfare system, while the juvenile justice system focuses primarily on youths charged with delinquency or status offenses. As of 2009, more than 2.8 million youths are under juvenile court supervision annually with around 1.65 million new cases processed each year (Puzzanchera, Adams, & Sickmund, 2012).


The principles underlying the creation of this social institution were that children are developmentally immature and required protection, they are malleable and can be habilitated or rehabilitated, and the court should aid children suffering from a broad range of problems different from those of adults. Children were assumed to be dependent, developing physically and psychologically, and in need of care and nurturance. They differed from adults by having lesser capacity for reasoning and moral judgment; thus they were less culpable for their behavior (Tanenhaus, 2002). Because the focus was on the rehabilitation of offenders, its development had an impact on court procedures and resulted in a theory of state responsibility for children as represented in the concept of parens patriae.

Prior to the establishment of the juvenile court, juveniles charged with delinquent acts were primarily tried in the criminal justice system, but even then age played a role in presumptions of guilt, because juveniles below the age of fourteen were presumed not to possess sufficient criminal responsibility to commit a crime. The creation of the juvenile court altered this presumption in part, providing almost exclusive jurisdiction over individuals below the age of eighteen who were charged with violating criminal laws in most states. Hearings were to be informal, private, “in the best interest of the child,” and civil rather than criminal. These tenets constituted a separate system of justice that recognized the differences between children and adults (Zimring, 2002).

State legislation permitted judges to use their discretion in conducting hearings and prescribing interventions. To meet their statutory goals, the juvenile justice system employed a range of programs and services—including prevention, diversion, detention, probation, community services, and residential treatment (Rosenheim, 2002). For most of the twentieth century, judges heard juvenile cases and then diverted most of them to community services outside the court, but substantial numbers were institutionalized, even for extended periods.

19601980. In many communities, the court failed to meet the goals of its founders to be responsible for the provision of rehabilitation. Beginning in the 1960s, the human rights movement influenced developments in juvenile justice because of growing concern that juveniles receive due process and protection of their civil liberties. Decisions of the Supreme Court in cases such as Kent v. U.S. 383U.S. 541 (1966), In re Gault 387 U.S.1 (1967), and In re Winship 397 U.S. 352 (1970) led to many new social policy initiatives to protect children’s rights to challenge arbitrary dispositions. A series of national commission reports (Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice and the Task Force on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, 1974) had positive effects, extending human rights along with policies of decriminalization, deinstitutionalization, and diversion. By the 1970s, passage of the first federal juvenile justice legislation, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, funded state efforts to reduce institutionalization and increase local community-based programming.

19802000. The progress of the 1960s and 1970s was dramatically reversed in the 1980s and 1990s, with the passage of federal and state legislation that emphasized incarceration and punishment, along with withdrawal of the distinction between juveniles and adults as far as certain criminal behavior was concerned. As a century of the juvenile court was celebrated in 2000, laws and philosophy had returned to many practices in place before the invention of the juvenile court. Thousands of juveniles were held in adult prisons and jails, often under very punitive conditions (Lerman, 2002). Feld (1999) argues that judicial, administrative, and legislative decisions transformed the court into a second-class criminal court that did not serve the interests of children. Much of the transformation appeared to be “justified” by the increase in juvenile crime between 1985 and 1995 (Bishop, 2000). After 1995, however, there was a dramatic decline in juvenile crime that continued through 2009, especially serious violent crime, but there has not been a corresponding reduction in the numbers of juveniles processed (Puzzanchera et al., 2012).

Since 2000. Much of the discussion about the juvenile justice system in the early twenty-first century neglects the changes in the societal context in which it operates. Garland (2001) and Beckett and Western (2000) point to the increasing culture of control and the declining provision of social welfare benefits for the population at risk for involvement in the justice system. Family structure has undergone and is undergoing substantial changes that affect children because single parents are unable to provide the necessary supervision and support, especially in the critical adolescent years. The increasing rates of poverty, the decline of public school education, the lack of physical and mental health care, and the changing economic structure, in which well-paying blue collar jobs are unavailable for young adults, have had a pronounced effect on these vulnerable youths since the mid-1990s (Holzer, 2010). Millions of dollars are spent on incarceration and control, but few resources are available to prepare the middle- and working-class youth population for successful adulthood (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2005; Setterstein, Furstenberg, & Rumbaut, 2005). All these factors affect juvenile crime in society and thereby the operation of the juvenile justice system. Two decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court extended human rights to juveniles: the Roper v. Simmons decision. declared the execution of juveniles to be unconstitutional, and Graham v. Florida (2010) eliminated “life without parole” sentences for nonhomicidal cases. In 2012, the Supreme Court declared the sentence of life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of homicide (Miller v. Alabama, 2012).

Organization and Structure

The juvenile justice system comprises the statutes and policies, as well as organizations, charged with responsibility for the processing of juveniles who violate state laws and local ordinances (Ross and Miller, 2011). The legal definition of delinquency and crime varies from state to state as to the ages of youths under juvenile court jurisdiction and the roles of the various court officials responsible for the processing of juveniles into and through the court. The system varies widely among the states, because most criminal law is under state jurisdiction, but the law is administered locally. As in many other sectors, federalism characterizes the organizational structures of the courts in the United States, in contrast to many other countries.

The processing typically includes:


Arrest and referral of a juvenile to the court for a law violation; some police may have warning and diversion alternatives that may precede or follow initial court referral


Juvenile court intake includes referral for trial, diversion of minor offenders, detention, and preliminary assessment.


Filing of a formal petition and deciding to try the youth in juvenile court or transfer the youth to adult court for criminal processing.


Hearing or trial by the court and determination of innocence or guilt.


Disposition decision-making by the judge and placement in a program for those adjudicated as delinquent for an indeterminate or specific period of time, depending upon state laws or judicial discretion, and release or special sanctions for the others.


Re-integration or reentry programming, which is formalized as parole but may also be informally and unevenly provided.


There are many inter-state variations in the number of juveniles processed at different stages in court processing.

More than 1.91 million youths below the age of eighteen were arrested in 2009, but only 26% were arrested for serious person or property crimes or “index” crimes as these are defined (Puzzanchera, 2011). The remaining offenses were misdemeanors, drug offenses, and public order or status offenses. Juvenile crime increased substantially in the late 1980s, but by 2003, most violent crime had fallen below that observed in 1980 (Snyder, 2012). Of those arrested 1.653 million cases were referred to the juvenile court in 2008. Cases not referred—particularly “status offenses;” those behaviors that are included in the jurisdiction of the juvenile court in many states but are not classified as crimes—may be diverted to other agencies. Status offenses include running away, incorrigibility, truancy, and liquor-law violations.

Fifty-five percent of all cases are formally petitioned, and 45% are dismissed or referred to a variety of social agencies for services. If petitioned, 67% can be expected to be adjudicated delinquent, and subsequently, 62% of those are placed on probation and 22% receive an out-of-the-home placement, most often in a residential institution. Even at the final disposition stage, some juvenile cases are dismissed, and youths are released or given other sanctions outside the formal justice system. Waiver to adult court will result for about 1% of the cases, but that number has declined since 2002 (Griffin, Addie, Adams, & Firestone, 2011). Those numbers vary widely among the states, however, reflecting the differences in state statutes. Overall, fewer than 10% of the youths who enter the court system ultimately end up in a correctional institution.

Delinquency-case rates overall were 40.7 per 1,000 youth aged ten to seventeen years in 2008, but there were marked variations by age, from 4.6 per 1,000 for ten-year-olds to 109.1 per 1,000 for those seventeen years old. The overall rate was far lower than the rate of 81.6 in 1994, a reflection of the decline in crime by juveniles during a period of substantial population growth (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). There are sex differences by age, in that female crime peaks at sixteen years while the peak age for males is seventeen.

As Table 1 indicates, most youths held in custody out of their homes are held in detention. The rate of 8.5 per 1,000 youth is nearly three times the rate of those in placement following adjudication. Placement in detention is important, because it is predictive of subsequent adjudication and referral to an institution. The numbers in detention increased substantially after 1985, with drug cases explaining most of the increase (140%). Frequently arrested for drug violations, African American males are 41% of all detainees, and their detention is a key factor in their overall disproportionate representation in the juvenile justice system (Puzzanchera et al., 2012).

In the decade between 1990 and 2000, formal handling of juvenile court cases increased from 49.8% to 57.7% (McNeece & Jackson, 2004). Not surprisingly, there were subsequent increases in adjudications, waivers, and placements as formalization increased.


On a given day in 2004, 96,655 youths were held in public and private correctional facilities (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Annually, more than 145,000 youths adjudicated for delinquency are sent to an out-of-home placement for a specified period or an indefinite stay. This is a small percentage of the more than 2.2 million youths arrested, and the numbers in placement declined after 2000, following the increases in most states during the 1990s, when the juvenile crime rate was substantially higher.

On 22 February 2010, there were a total of 79,165 youths in 2,259 facilities in the United States, a decline of more than one-third since 1997. The average number of days incarcerated for youths committed to residential programs was 106 in public facilities and 127 in private ones. This length of stay is considerably longer than the average of nineteen days for which youths are held in detention. (Hockenberry, 2013). The percentage of youths held in custody, both in detention and post-adjudication placement, is far less than the nearly 2 million annually arrested.

Table 1 Youth Population and Processing Rates



Population, 10–17 years(2009)

40,607, 537

Juvenile arrests (2008)



Referrals to juvenile court—delinquency



Petitions to juvenile court









Assigned to probation



Placed out of home



Waived to adult criminal court



Rates are calculated at the numbers per 1,000 youths processed during the year 2008.

Table 2 Delinquency Offense, 2002

Referral to Court

Type of Crime






























Public Order



10 12

12 9







From Court Statistics, 2012, by Puzzanchers, Adams, & Hockenberry, Washington, DC: OJJDP, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Copyright 2012 by the U.S. Department of Justice. Reprinted with permission.

Youths charged with person crimes have a higher probability of post-adjudication placement than those charged with property or public-order crimes. Among the person crimes, there has been a substantial increase in processing and institutionalization of juveniles as sexual offenders for extended periods followed by placement of their names on a public registry. Zimring (2004) strongly criticizes the punitiveness of some of these practices. Although a relatively small percentage of youths are charged with drug crimes, they are likely to be placed out of the home because of the lack of drug-treatment facilities in many communities or because of parental drug abuse. The profile of offenders in public versus private facilities does not vary significantly, but offenders placed for the most serious crimes are more often found in public facilities. Out-of-home placement rose by 44% during the late 1990s, but since 2000, it has declined by 33%, primarily among property and person offenders.


Young females’ rising rates of involvement with the juvenile justice system have received increased attention. Their rate of arrest rose to 30% of total juvenile arrests in 2008, and the involvement of young women in certain crimes (larceny, drugs, and simple assault) has risen more sharply than that of males (Puzzanchera et al., 2012). Because the number of male offenders is so much larger, percentage comparisons are misleading. It is less clear that female crime has increased commensurate to their involvement in the justice system—for example, their detention and placement in residential programs for status offenses, primarily involving family conflict. The rising rate of their involvement may be partly the result of changes in the roles and responsibilities of women as well as changing policies and practices that serve to bring more young women under the care and control of the justice system—for example, the referral of girls in need of mental health services to the justice system. It has been noted that 60–70% of the youths in juvenile justice have a diagnosable mental health problem, with more females than males so diagnosed (Zahn, 2009; Kempf-Leonard, 2012). Of growing concern regarding juveniles in placement is the sexual victimization of residents by both staff and peers. In a survey completed in 2008–2009, Beck and Harrison (2010) reported that 10.3% of residents reported being sexually victimized by staff and 2.3% by another offender.

Evidence-Based Models of Intervention

Because it has been shown that there is a wide range of factors that cause or are associated with delinquency, it is not surprising that there are many programs for prevention, early intervention, alternatives to incarceration, community-based intervention, and residential treatment. Using meta-analysis techniques, Lipsey and Wilson (1998) found the following characteristics to be associated with greater effectiveness:

The integrity of the treatment model implementation.

Longer duration of treatment produces better results.

Results from well-established programs exceed new programs.

Treatment administered by mental health professionals.

Emphasis on interpersonal-skills training.

Use of the teaching of family home methods.

Overall, they found community-based programs to be more effective than programs in custodial settings, so the context for the treatment is important. Voluntary participation was shown to be more effective than that which is coerced, and there are ways by which voluntary assent can be achieved. Greenwood (2006) shows that balanced and restorative justice (BARJ) programs can integrate restitution and community service by which an offender can repair the harm he or she may have caused. A report of the U.S. Surgeon General on Youth Violence (2001) concurs that many programs are effective with delinquent youths, but the report emphasizes the importance of the quality of implementation.

Elliot and his colleagues at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Youth Violence have developed “Blueprints” of ten programs meeting rigorous criteria that include demonstrated positive outcomes on problem behavior that persists beyond a youth's involvement in a program. They can be consulted at for technical assistance regarding the programs that they regard as effective. (Michalic, Fagan, Irwin, Ballard, & Elliot, 2002).

Greenwood (2006) has identified a large number of programs that have been shown to be effective for working with youths from preschool age through adolescence. For example, the Perry School Pre-School program was shown to reduce delinquency when the participants reached adulthood, in contrast with a comparable control group. Programs targeting a youth and his or her family have been shown to be effective, including functional family therapy, multisystemic therapy, the Seattle Social Development Program, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. An extensive review of evidence-based models for more effective intervention is presented by (Greenwood & Turner, 2011)

Because of the lack of systematic evaluation, the effectiveness of most juvenile justice programs is unknown. Residential programs that include only delinquent youths are seldom effective in reducing recidivism, however. Other popular programs that have been shown not to be effective include boot camps, substance-abuse programs such as DARE, and “scared straight” programs.

Social Justice Issues

Some important social justice issues include over-representation of youths of color, prosecution of juveniles as adults, child welfare and juvenile justice, mental health of offenders, re-integration, and human rights.

Overrepresentation of Youths of Color

One of the most critical issues facing the entire justice system in the United States is the disproportionate representation of persons of color in all phases of the system, despite the fact that the United States has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The juvenile justice system is not an exception, in that youths of color are disproportionately represented in all phases of the justice, child welfare, and public assistance systems, particularly African American youths. Ward (2012) highlights in The Black Child Savers how extensive the discrimination has been toward African American youth throughout U.S. history. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 was amended in 1988 to mandate that states that participate in its programs make “every effort” to achieve proportional representation of youths of color in the juvenile justice system, but little has been accomplished in 15 years. As of 2008, white youths represented 53% of white youth cases petitioned in juvenile court, with 61% for African American and Native American youths and 58% Asian (Sickmund, Sladky, & Kang, 2011).

The overrepresentation of youths of color in the early stages of processing has profound effects, because if a youth is detained, there is an increased probability of being found guilty and sentenced to an out-of-home placement. As youths of color move through the justice system. there are amplification effects in the subsequent processing that add to the overrepresentation (Hawkins & Kempf-Leonard, 2005; Feld & Bishop, 2012). Unfortunately, we do not have adequate information about the Hispanic youths, as almost all are grouped with whites, but that can be expected to change with the growing Hispanic population in the United States. The overrepresentation of African American youths is most evident in the rate of placement in residential facilities, and for this we have data about Hispanic youths as well as Native American and Asian youths (Hockenberry, 2013). It is difficult not to ascribe racial discrimination to the fact that African American youths are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youths, since the difference in being petitioned by the court is relatively small, as Table 3 indicates.

Table 3 Juvenile Justice Case Processing


African American

Hispanic American

Native American

Asian American

% Rep. in Population






Petitioned in Juvenile Court






Rate Incarcerated per 100,000






Data Sources: U.S. Census, 2010

Sickmund, Sladky & Kang (2011) Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics, 2011. Online at

Hockenberry, S. (2013) Juveniles in Residential Placement, 2010. Online at

A variety of factors have been identified as causes of this disproportionality, including:

Crime rates are higher in neighborhoods with high levels of deterioration and segregation, where youths of color reside and where police are likely to do more surveillance (Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush, 2005).

Juvenile justice agencies treat youths of color more severely than white youths, particularly early in processing (Bishop & Frazier, 2000; Bridges & Steen, 1998).

Nunn (2002) argues that the oppression of African American youths (especially males) appears normal, because decision-makers have been socialized to undervalue the lives of these youths.

Diversion and other alternatives to incarceration are more available in suburban areas with lower proportions of youths of color (Sarri, Shook, & Ward, 2001).

Discrimination against African American youths is most evident in rates of incarceration, as Table 3 indicates, and that is influenced by the disproportionate processing of them at every step in the juvenile justice process (Mulvey, 2011).

The highest rates of incarceration of youths of color are found in public residential facilities, reaching 90% in some states (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Overall, as of 2004, 754 African American, 496 American Indian/Native American, 348 Hispanic, 190 white, and 113 Asian youths per 100,000 were incarcerated.

Prosecuting and Incarcerating Juveniles as Adults

The shift toward the punitive handling of children and youths in the justice systems is best exemplified by the increased transfer of juveniles to adult criminal courts and their subsequent incarceration in adult prisons. During the 1990s, there was a proliferation of transfer legislation: forty-four states and the District of Columbia enacted at least one change easing the processing of juveniles as adults (Griffin, Addie, Adams, & Firestone, 2011). By the end of the decade, all fifty states permitted the transfer to adult courts. Although the legislative changes were made to address growing youth violence, by 2000, the majority of youths sentenced to the adult system were there for property, drug, and public order offenses. This legislation also decreased the power of the juvenile court judge and expanded that of the prosecutor. This change represented a significant shift in the role of the judge that had existed since 1900, when the court was founded.

There are three procedures by which juveniles are transferred for trial as adults: judicial discretion, prosecutorial discretion, and statutory exclusion of certain youths from the juvenile court based on offense and age. Some states do not maintain minimum age limits for trying juveniles as adults, while other states set the lower age limit between ten and sixteen years. Some states allow for a case to be designated for trial in the juvenile court with adult court rules. The juvenile may receive a “blended sentence” that permits a youth to remain in the juvenile system, provided he or she commits no subsequent crime (Shook & Sarri, 2008).

Accurate information on the numbers of youths processed as adults is not available. Bishop (2000) reviewed a large number of studies and was unable to arrive at a sound estimate. As of 2008, 8,900 youths were waived to the adult court for processing (Griffin, et. al. 2011). There has been a decline since 2000 because of the dramatic decline in serious and violent crime by juveniles, but the amount of the decline remains unknown. The U.S. Justice Department reported that as of 2004, there were 2,800 youth under 18 in adult prisons; however, this number excludes adults who were sentenced as juveniles, often with long sentences, so nationally the number may well exceed 100,000 individuals (Harrison & Beck, 2006). In 1997, there were 7,400 juveniles below the age of eighteen in state and federal prisons. As of 2011 there were 1790 youth below 18 years in adult prisons (USDOJ, 2012). The largest number of youth below 18 years were 5900 who were held in adult jails in 2011 although this practice is prohibited by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act since 1974.

Juveniles of color and males are the majority of those tried as adults (Hawkins & Kempf-Leonard, 2005). Most youths in adult prisons will be released in their mid-twenties, but they will be ill-equipped to meet the demands of society for successful adulthood and parenting because of the stigma of incarceration and because of the lack of education, health care, and social services while incarcerated. Moreover, charges of human rights violations have been and are being made with respect to the conditions of incarceration (Human Rights Watch, 2005). Studies of recidivism indicate that juveniles released from adult facilities have higher rates of recidivism than similar youths released from juvenile facilities (Bishop & Frazier, 2000; Fagan, 1996). Decisions by the Supreme Court have reduced the incarceration of juveniles in adult facilities. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute a juvenile.

Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

The juvenile court serves abused and neglected children as well as those charged with delinquency, but it was expected that the two areas would be separately addressed since child welfare clients are initially victims of parental abuse or neglect, while juvenile delinquents are viewed as primarily responsible for their behavior as perpetrators of crimes. This distinction has become increasingly ambiguous as studies have shown the “drift” of child welfare clients to the juvenile justice system (Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000; Kelly, 2002; Ryan, Hong, & Hernandez, 2010). In the Cook County, Illinois, juvenile court, it was observed that more than a third of maltreated children ended up in the juvenile justice system as delinquents.

Overall, African American and Hispanic youths with experience in foster care have been shown to be at high risk for subsequent transfer to the justice system. Most of those who “drift” into the justice system are reported to be male, and many are committed to adult prisons shortly after they “age out” of the child welfare system at eighteen years. With a large sample in California, Jonson-Reid and Barth (2000) followed youths from child welfare to entrance into the California Youth Authority. They observed that if youths were transferred to probation, the risk for subsequent transfer to the CYA for a serious felony increased significantly. Having multiple placements was correlated with transfer to the justice system.

A recent study in Michigan of adolescents who aged out of foster care reported several negative outcomes: homelessness, inadequate education, lack of employment, mental health problems, substance abuse, and experience in the justice system (Fowler & Toro, 2006). These youths also reported being physically and sexually abused. To delineate the process by which child-welfare youths “drift” into the justice system, youths frequently run away from placements, more often from congregate care than individual foster care or kin care. Some of them may engage in delinquent behavior as they attempt to survive “on the street.” When they are apprehended by police, they may be taken to a detention facility pending a hearing by the court. Depending upon the outcome of that hearing, a juvenile may then be moved to juvenile-justice-system status, and the child welfare system may cease involvement with the case. Because a youth may be an older adolescent at this point, there is a tendency to view him or her more as a delinquent than as a victim of abuse or neglect.

Mental Health and Juvenile Competency

The collapse of the mental health system serving children and youths in the l990s resulted in a gradual movement of mentally ill juveniles into the justice system. The inappropriateness of these placements was exacerbated by the lack of adequate legislation in many states for the assessment of competency for trial as a delinquent or as an adult. Prior to the 1990s, issues of juvenile competence were seldom raised, but findings from research on brain development and developmental maturity, as well as concerns about due process protection of youth, raised concerns in both the mental health and legal professions (Scott & Grisso, 1997). Findings from brain-development research are directly relevant to the criminal-justice processing of juveniles for both the individual’s culpability and his or her ability to participate effectively in his or her defense. Recent neuroimaging studies indicate that the brain, specifically the pre-frontal lobe (PFC), continues to grow and change throughout adolescence and into the twenties. The PFC controls higher-order cognitive processes, which include motivation, inhibition, logical decision-making, risk taking, problem solving, planning, emotional regulation, sexual urges, and anticipation of consequences (Spear, 2000). Past and current trauma and stress have detrimental effects on adolescent brain functioning, and delinquent adolescents are significantly more at risk for limited cognitive development (Arnsten & Shansky, 2004; Feld & Bishop, 2012).

In trying to estimate the number of juveniles with a diagnosable mental disorder, Grisso (2004) reported that findings from several studies indicated that 60–70% of juveniles in correctional facilities have at least one disorder. Relatively few receive professional evaluations or treatment in most settings. Grisso suggests reasons for attention to these youths: (a) agencies have a legal and moral responsibility to attend to the mental health needs of juveniles; (b) juveniles are entitled to due process and equal protection under the law, including determination of their competency to participate in their own defense; and (c) protection of the public requires that juveniles with mental disorders be treated and managed in ways that maintain protection.

Re-integration and Aftercare

Each year, nearly 100,000 juvenile offenders in correctional facilities are returned to their home communities, and an even larger number are released from probation, but re-integration services are poorly developed and reach a small proportion of returning youths (Griffin, 2005). In many states juveniles are released from correctional facilities under state-supervised parole, and so there is little adaptation to the circumstances of the youth or the community.

Griffin (2005) describes three court-directed programs for aftercare and reintegration—in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana—that offered comprehensive services for education, employment, and treatment as needed along with mentoring and monitoring.. Spencer and Jones-Walker (2004) offer a theory-based re-integration model that focuses on identity formation, recognizing that being in a correctional program is a life-changing experience. They present a cognitive behavioral approach that addresses the individual’s environment as well as his or her personal characteristics. Their research and that of Barton (2006) found very low rates of recidivism among youths who completed programs that promoted competency, a positive sense of self, and transition programming with strong social support necessary for the youth to achieve success and stability. In a longitudinal study of 1,354 youths for seven years after conviction of a serious crime, Mulvey (2011a) observed that 91.5% decreased their criminal activity, especially if they received community-based supervision, substance-abuse treatment, and greater stability in their living arrangements, school and work.

Human Rights

The United States strongly advocates for the extension of human rights enforcement throughout the world, but when it relates directly to the United States, there is resistance not only to the adoption but also to the enforcement of those rights by United Nations agencies. Nowhere are the principles of human rights more at risk than in the U.S. processing of juveniles in the justice system. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child has not been ratified by the United States, and several of its provisions have been ignored. The United States has signed and ratified four other conventions, which are often negated by its practices of processing juveniles as adults, in the conditions of confinement in many facilities, in the incarceration of juveniles when community services would be more effective, and in the over-representation of youths of color in all levels of the juvenile justice system. The four other conventions include: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on Human Rights. The relevance and importance of international law and customs was acknowledged by Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court in his decision in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court acknowledged that the juvenile death penalty was unconstitutional. In 2005, writing for the majority, Kennedy stated that international law provided guidance for the Supreme Court, because execution of juveniles was prohibited in many Western countries many years prior to 2005. In 2010, the Court further addressed the incarceration of juveniles in Graham v. Florida (2010), in which it ruled that it was unconstitutional to incarcerate a youth for life for an offense that was less than a capital crime.

Human rights conventions set limits on state punishment and control, specify what is required in legal representation of children in the justice systems, reject the transferring of children to the adult justice system, mandate states to make “every effort” to achieve proportional representation of youths of color in the juvenile justice system, and specify appropriate conditions of confinement (Sarri & Shook, 2005). Attention to international law and custom is increasingly recognized in the United States, as are the more humane policies and practices in other countries (Amnesty International, 1998). Human rights frameworks provide powerful tools for effecting the processing of juveniles in the United States. It is probable that in the near future we will see a challenge to the “life without parole” sentences of juveniles, using international law as a conceptual framework for the complaint.

Future Trends and Directions

Greater attention to community-based intervention is essential if juvenile justice in the United States is to increase in effectiveness (Greenwood & Turner, 2011; Tyler, Zeidenberg, & Lotke, 2006). The efforts of the founders of the juvenile court, along with those who advocated for juvenile rights in the 1960s and 1970s need reexamination, including the goals of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which strongly asserted that juveniles were to be primarily treated in the community. Moreover, that Act has emphasized priorities to reduce overrepresentation of youths of color, achieve gender equity, and increase community-based intervention. Edelman’s presentation of the four circles for intervention in a comprehensive approach to youth policy comes the closest to recognition of the earlier priorities—reduction of poverty, universalistic approaches to youth development, education and after-school programming, and parsimony in punitive intervention (Edelman, 2002). He argues for approaches that “do no harm” as a minimum requirement.

Public opinion surveys report that a majority of the public (91%) believe that rehabilitative services and treatment for incarcerated youths can help prevent future crimes (Krisberg & Marchionna, 2007). The public also thinks that spending on rehabilitative services will save tax dollars in the long run. These attitudes suggest that in the future we may see a return to the goals of the original juvenile court, as Mears, Hay, Gertz, and Mancini (2007) suggest.

The character of the justice system is shaped by the attitudes and behavior of local communities. The newly developing programs of restorative justice, community service, and conflict resolution may provide the mechanisms for restoring community values regarding children and youths. In 2013 the National Research Council proposed a developmental strategy for juvenile justice reform which focuses on addressing the needs and characteristics of at-risk youth. Implementing such a strategy would advance the goals of the original juvenile court and of the provisions of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974.


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