Building a More Effective Juvenile Justice System

The value of an effective juvenile justice system

Despite our best efforts at prevention, some youth will become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Research indicates that an effective juvenile justice system richly reinforces desirable behavior. It clearly communicates expectations and rules and minimizes opportunities for youth to engage in problematic behavior. Adults in an effective juvenile justice system consistently and fairly give negative consequences for rule infractions. However, an effective system also provides numerous opportunities for youth to engage in positive activities and creates meaningful roles for youth to build skills and motivation.

One size does not fit all; thus, an effective juvenile justice system actively provides empirically titrated supervision to all youth in the system based on their risk for criminal behavior and their need-those diverted, those incarcerated, and those released.35 An effective system works to build positive relationships between troubled youth and positive, caring, well-trained adults. It minimizes the congregation of juvenile offenders and separates high-risk youth from lower-risk youth. It ensures that juvenile offenders, including lower-risk and first-time offenders, have appropriate levels of contact with well-trained adults rather than with other problematic peers. For example, lower-risk and a large majority of first-time offenders have better outcomes with lower levels of contact with the system, whereas higher-risk youth have better outcomes with a higher density of appropriate supervision and treatment.35 Finally, an effective juvenile justice system provides evidence-based services in mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as effective academic and social skills development.36-40

Oregon's juvenile justice system is moving toward evidence-based practices that can ensure that most youthful offenders do not re-offend. Prompted by Senate Bill 555 passed in 1999, Oregon has made a large investment in developing Juvenile Crime Prevention (JCP) programs in each county. This JCP system is designed to prevent criminal behavior by identifying, as early as possible, youth with multiple risk factors for delinquency, targeting those high-risk youth, and intervening to reduce their risk factors and increase their protective factors related to juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior by utilizing evidence-based interventions. These JCP programs have been shown to reduce juvenile crime and risks for juvenile crime in the youth who have actually received services.41

Factors that limit the effectiveness of juvenile justice systems

Currently, however, most juvenile justice systems are unable to ensure that troubled youth and their families get assistance when problems are still small, before the youth enters the system. For a substantial proportion of youth in the juvenile justice system, their primary problem is a family, mental health, or substance use disorder that should have been appropriately treated outside of the juvenile justice system to prevent the youth from entering the system. Instead, youth often get no or non-evidenced-based early treatment for these problems, which then escalate and result in the youth entering the juvenile justice system. The evidence is clear that incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences, and mandatory waivers to adult court make young people's long-term success much less likely.40,42,43

Putting troubled youth into ever-more punitive, restrictive, and long-term environments goes against everything we know about the development of the adolescent brain and robs these youth of opportunities to learn new skills and ways of behaving that are more positive. Yet most states' emphasis on incarceration and punishment does just that, and interferes with effective diversionary, treatment, and rehabilitation practices. Most states only rarely implement evidence-based diversionary practices, mental health and substance use treatment, and rehabilitation practices. It is worth noting, however, that recent policies in Oregon require increasing implementation of evidence-based practices within the juvenile justice system.

Research studies on high-risk youth show that a system in which problematic youth are congregated increases the likelihood that youth will learn negative behaviors from one another, by reinforcing each other's deviant behaviors.44

Finally, although Oregon Juvenile Crime Prevention programs have been shown to reduce juvenile crime in those youth receiving services, there is still no consistent method for tracking and reporting what services are actually provided to each youth, the extent to which the services provided are evidence-based, and the degree to which the services are delivered with quality and fidelity.41

Evidence-based practices can make a difference

Fortunately, a number of evidence-based practices have made a positive impact on reduced incarceration and recidivism rates for youth. Research shows that threatening and punitive interactions, incarceration, and punishment escalate the aggressive behavior of troubled youth.38-40, 43

Several steps can reduce offending and re-offending. We can reduce emphasis on incarceration and punishment; divert lower-risk youth from detention and incarceration; reduce contacts among juvenile offenders; increase offenders' interactions with and supervision from well-trained, positive adults; provide evidenced-based mental health and substance abuse treatments; and improve tracking and reporting procedures for what services are actually provided and the quality of their delivery.

Evidence-based diversion programs reduce rates of incarceration and re-arrest, especially for lower-risk and first-time offenders.43

Other family-based programs are effective with chronic and serious youth offenders. At least three are cost-effective as well: Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), Functional Family Therapy (FFT), and Multisystemic Therapy (MST).16-19 In each of these programs, youth receive intensive family-based intervention with adults who provide them with firm structure and supervision, prevent associations with deviant peers, make and fairly enforce clear rules, and teach and reinforce skilled behavior.

We noted above (p. 14) that MTFC saves $10.88 per dollar invested, for a total savings of $24,290 per participant. FFT saves $13.25 per dollar invested, for a total savings of $26,216 per youth; and MST saves $2.64 per dollar invested, for a total savings of $9,316 per youth.11

Imagine if youth correctional systems were redesigned so that they made the best possible use of these evidence-based principles, practices, and programs, and states saw their arrest rates decrease as a result.

Action steps needed

  • Ensure that effective interventions are available for multiproblem youth and their families before they encounter the juvenile justice system. This includes providing evidence-based treatments for those whose primary problem is a mental health or substance abuse problem.
  • Reduce reliance on incarceration and other strategies that congregate juvenile offenders together. Instead, provide a full continuum of research-based, effective juvenile diversion options in the community as alternatives to incarceration.
  • Focus juvenile justice responses and interventions on individuals' actual risk factors for criminal behavior and their need, rather than the traditional approach of focusing simply on the crime committed.
  • Implement evidence-based rehabilitation and treatment practices for incarcerated youth, making sure that all youth involved in the juvenile justice system have access to evidence-based mental health and substance abuse treatment as needed, as well as to an appropriate public education. Support better and more effective family involvement by keeping incarcerated youth as close to home as possible.