By Leah Robertson
On Monday, June 10, The National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) discussed the findings of their recently released report: Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach
. The report found that well-designed, community-based programs are more likely than confinement to reduce recidivism and facilitate healthy social and moral development for most young offenders and that even in the most serious cases of personal violence, criminal court sentences should avoid confining adolescents in adult prisons.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Administrator Bob Listenbee spoke briefly about the implications of this research as a critical tool for promoting a positive behavioral model for juvenile justice. He emphasized, “I am confident that there is very strong support for juvenile justice reform at the present time” and reinforced his commitment to increasing OJJDP’s role in disseminating information on states with strong reforms and providing technical assistance to states who want to do the same.
Other speakers included researchers, juvenile justice practitioners, doctors and others with expertise in adolescent development and delinquency. The panelists presented the findings of the report, noting six conclusions in particular:
- There are important differences between adults and adolescents that are well-studied and scientifically quantifiable. Much adolescent involvement in illegal activity is an extension of the kind of risk-taking that is part of the developmental process, and most adolescents mature out of these activities.
- Knowledge about adolescent development can provide a framework for reforming the juvenile justice system to create a system that bolsters, rather than hinders, positive behavioral development.
- Current juvenile justice approaches do not utilize the approaches that promote positive behavioral development such as family and parent engagement, pro-social peer interactions, and opportunities for social development.
- Juvenile justice’s overreliance on incapacitation denies kids opportunities for normal socialization and disturbs development.
- Over the past 15 years, substantial progress toward positive reforms has been made, but the pace has been slow and there is a disturbing lack of empirical data collection in the field.
- OJJDP should take the lead to strengthen the requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, in particular the valid court order (VCO) exception, disproportionate minority contact and keeping kids separated from adults.
The panelists and audience concurred that this research will be critical in advocating for reform. Practitioners emphasized that this is the research that juvenile justice experts could see, but they did not have the science to back up their observations. With this data however, there is finally a strong body of science to serve as a base for passing legislation that coordinate juvenile justice practices with the specific needs of young people. They emphasized that reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act would be critical to this effort.