Why Do Juvenile Treatment Courts Struggle to Produce Outcomes?

At Reclaiming Futures we’ve been studying and piloting ways to build a more equitable and effective, public health-oriented approach to youth justice. It strikes us that the juvenile justice system has been struggling with an identity crisis since the turn of the 20th century when the first juvenile courts emerged. The struggle continues today. More than 100 years later we see that in spite of the proliferation of community-based, treatment-oriented alternatives to “juvenile justice-as-usual”, the rehabilitative mission of juvenile justice remains at odds with the way the system actually behaves, and very few “diversion” programs are able to move the needle on recidivism and keep kids out of the system. 

Treatment programs overseen by the courts and probation departments put kids under a microscope and often end up driving youth further into the system for behavior unrelated to the original, often minor charge that brought them into court. A youth’s ability to succeed in programs like Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts – which are arguably the premier rehabilitation program that juvenile courts have to offer - is routinely undermined by the system’s more punitive and bureaucratic tendencies and its preference for custody and control in response to program compliance issues. Most treatment courts still use jail to punish youth for program-related behaviors and almost all Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts graduate significantly less than 50% of the youth they enroll. Most juvenile public defenders will tell you they are wary of diversion programs and treatment courts and often prefer their odds representing their young clients in adult criminal court. 

This past May our colleague Jeff Butts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice discussed this conundrum in juvenile justice with the Committee on Law and Justice at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Dr Butts provides an excellent Overview of the History and Purpose of Youth Diversion from the Juvenile Justice System in this 12-minute YouTube recording.



Updated: June 18 2019