Creating a More Equitable and Effective Juvenile Justice System

This opinion-editorial was originally published on

We know that young offenders are different from adults and that incarcerating them perpetuates cycles of trauma and inequality that do us all more harm than good. As Congress considers pending juvenile justice reforms, such as the landmark Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), it’s worth reviewing the role that basic federal protections and effective community-based interventions play every day in improving young lives and keeping our communities safe.

Enacted in 1974, the JJDPA created the first federal-state partnership to address juvenile delinquency in the United States. Recognizing that incarceration is a traumatic experience for everyone, especially young people, the JJDPA established a set of core national protections to minimize detainment and dangerous exposure to adult inmates for troubled youth who came into contact with the justice system.

In 2002, those safeguards were strengthened and expanded to address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. In order to receive federal juvenile justice funds, the JJDPA required states to address disproportionate minority contact (DMC) at every level of the system — referring to the disproportionately high numbers of minority youth who are arrested, charged and convicted compared to their white peers.

In the ensuing 13 years of juvenile justice reform, a growing body of research documents that an overly punitive, and at times abusive, juvenile justice system is ineffective, biased and even harmful for America’s youth. In spite of the JJDPA’s mandate regarding DMC, the needle has not moved appreciably, but in the new version of JJDPA under consideration the proposed protections for young people are significantly stronger.

As Congress weighs reauthorization of the JJDPA and other reforms, here are the most important highlights from recent research that should be considered.

Despite everything modern science now tells us about adolescent brain development — including that the key decision-making parts of the human brain don’t fully develop until well into a person’s 20s and that this maturation is predicated on a young person’s ability to safely learn from their mistakes in the real world — our juvenile justice system still detains and incarcerates too many youth for minor offenses.

Zero tolerance policies, mandatory sentencing and other regulations that limit judicial discretion put first-time offenders on a fast track to deeper involvement in the justice system. Too often, this leads to disengagement from school, future unemployment and a lifetime of poverty and poor health.

We also now know that trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can derail the healthy development of a young person’s brain, making him more prone to conflict, mistrust and poor decision-making. Recently, the field of juvenile justice has made great strides in adopting a more trauma-informed perspective. For example, innovative programs like Sandra Bloom’s Sanctuary Model and Lisa Najavits’ Seeking Safety framework help train juvenile justice personnel to be aware of the impact their own behavior can have on the traumatized youth in their care. They have also brought a renewed focus on trauma screening and the importance of family involvement at every stage of the system.

But as we acknowledge the devastating impact of childhood trauma on our youth, we must also acknowledge the juvenile justice system’s role in inflicting, or exacerbating, that trauma through entrenched bias, maltreatment and neglect. Consider these facts:

  • Racial and ethnic minorities and LGBT youth are overly represented in the system. Black youth between the ages of 10 and 17 make up 17 percent of all U.S. children in that age group, but comprise 31 percent of all juvenile arrests, 40 percent of detentions, 34 percent of adjudications (guilty determinations) and 45 percent of cases transferred to adult criminal court. Gay and transgender youth are also overrepresented in the system, comprising just 5 to 7 percent of all U.S. teens, but making up 13 to 15 percent of incarcerated youth.
  • Juvenile detention facilities are not safe. Despite already having higher ACEs scores than their peers, youth who are detained in juvenile facilities are often exposed to even more violence and abuse in the system. A significant report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation documents the systemic maltreatment of youth in juvenile corrections facilities across more than 29 states, including 10 percent of youth who reported being sexually abused by staff or other detainees. A 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice yielded similar findings on the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse in youth detention facilities. Even the state of Missouri, with its much-praised and widely replicated program nicknamed the “Missouri Miracle,” has recently been cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for civil rights violations against youth in the system.
  • Detention traumatizes youth. Incarcerated teens have a higher prevalence of symptoms of trauma, situational distress and behavioral and emotional health difficulties. These conditions are made worse by the seclusion, abuse and violence that are too common in juvenile jails and detention facilities. Incarcerated youth commit suicide at a rate that is two to three times higher than the general youth population.

It is inconceivable that a system responsible for the administration of justice would allow such inequality and victimization to persist. We must do more to protect our nation’s young people.

As the only federal office dedicated specifically to overseeing juvenile justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has played a critical role in bringing accountability, research, evaluation and technical assistance to the field. It’s hard to imagine affecting meaningful reform on a national scale without its guidance and support.

Other leaders such as the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the Vera Institute of Justice have worked to shape more effective DMC standards and to promote data-driven approaches to juvenile justice reform. And the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA) — as well as a number of foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation — have supported innovation and critical studies to better understand how things like untreated substance abuse, childhood trauma, structural racism and inequality plague the current juvenile justice system, as well as what can be done to improve it.

Local community- or family-based interventions have been shown to be one of the least traumatic and most effective ways to reform and support at-risk youth. At Reclaiming Futures, our model unites juvenile justice stakeholders with the treatment, prevention and youth development community to promote the use of these approaches. Together, they re-engineer the local system of care to address issues of inequity and prior trauma, offer evidence-based approaches to behavioral health and substance use issues, and provide effective off-ramps for court-involved youth to avoid unnecessary incarceration.

We need more of this kind of interagency cooperation to address the diverse needs and experiences of the nation’s most vulnerable youth. By ushering in real and lasting reforms to the current juvenile justice system, Congress can help write the next chapter in the juvenile justice reform story.

Evan Elkin is the executive director of Reclaiming Futures, a national public health and juvenile justice reform organization.

Updated: February 08 2018