Most Effective Juvenile Justice Policy? Practitioners Say It's Drug Treatment

What works in juvenile justice? That's always a big question. After every youth violence tragedy, government officials are asked what they intend to do about teen crime. Academics and experts are asked how to reduce delinquency, how to lower recidivism, and which programs and policies are most effective? When we asked juvenile justice practitioners these questions in a recent study, their answer was substance abuse treatment.

As one of those "experts" on youth crime, I'm often asked to comment on juvenile justice policy. The question I hear the most frequently is, of course, "should we send more youth to criminal (adult) court?" (By the way, the answer is "no" except for severe violence. In most cases it is actually counter-productive).

However, there are many more important policy questions. Criminal court transfer is just one issue, and it affects relatively few youth. What about all the other policies and practices used in juvenile justice? What about curfew laws, detention alternatives, and restorative justice? Which of these are most effective?

Unfortunately, the most common answer to these questions is "we don't know yet." There are surprisingly few studies on the impact and effectiveness of juvenile justice policies. It is expensive and complicated to carry out good evaluation studies in the politicized and chaotic environment of juvenile justice. Thus, we really don't have many good answers— and we never will without new investments in research.

But, aren't there other ways to answer at least some of these questions? Instead of waiting for new evaluation research, couldn't we just ask people in the best position to know what works in juvenile justice. For example, couldn't we ask juvenile court judges and prosecutors what they see as the best ideas in juvenile crime policy?

That's just what we did recently. I collaborated with several former colleagues at the Urban Institute in a study that asked juvenile justice professionals in the 300 largest U.S. counties to assess the relative value of various policies and practices used to combat juvenile crime. We surveyed a representative sample of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and court administrators. More than 500 professionals answered a battery of questions about which policies they believed to be most effective and why.

Each policy or practice was assessed on several dimensions, including: 1) its effectiveness in reducing overall crime, 2) its impact on individual offenders; 3) its appropriateness as a punishment; 4) its basic fairness; 5) its efficiency, and 6) whether it was consistent with the traditional mission of the juvenile court.

News Flash: It turns out that when you ask the people who work in the juvenile justice system what is the best way to address youth crime, their top answer is effective substance abuse treatment.

Although opinions varied (e.g., prosecutors always favored criminal court transfer more than other groups), when we looked across all four professional groups and assessed their total reactions to a wide range of ideas and practices, the one that got top marks was substance abuse treatment.

In fact, the most highly ranked policies were:
  1. Substance abuse treatment
  2. Sex offender treatment
  3. Mental health treatment
  4. Reentry services and planning
  5. Coordination with social services

Which policies received the lowest rankings? Practitioners were least impressed with policies to reduce court confidentiality, to transfer juveniles to criminal court, juvenile curfews, and parental accountability laws (i.e., prosecuting parents for the behavior of their children). Of course, these ineffective policies are still very popular with elected officials and media commentators.

Maybe our opinion of the juvenile justice system depends on whether we are looking at it from the inside or the outside.

Watch for our forthcoming article about the Urban Institute survey:

Mears, Daniel P., Tracey L. Shollenberger, Janeen B. Willison, Colleen Owens, and Jeffrey A. Butts (forthcoming, 2009). Practitioner views of priorities, policies, and practices in juvenile justice. Crime and Delinquency. A journal from Sage Publications.

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Updated: February 08 2018