A Transformative Shift for Juvenile Justice

The accelerating move away from punitive detention recognizes a critical factor: Adolescent brains are different.
August 30, 2017
Young man in handcuffs.
(Shutterstock)
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

In the decade since I left health and human services administration and its issues behind, promising shifts in juvenile justice policy and practice have gained momentum. Perhaps the most significant development is the resolution adopted this summer by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges laying out new policy on juvenile probation and adolescent development. This is a game-changer.

In its resolution, the council outlines changes to modernize probation approaches to reflect knowledge of adolescent development and behavioral decision-making. At the heart of this is spreading awareness of the science that has illuminated how different adolescent brains are from those of adults and how counterproductive public policy and practice have been -- especially if the goal is to help young people get back on track toward successful lives.

Now, Instead of sanctions, incentives. Instead of standardized "conditions of parole," individualized case plans. Instead of binary "compliant or noncompliant" probation standards that trigger arbitrary returns to detention, differential responses that guide youth toward as normal a path to adulthood as possible, using out-of-home placement as a last resort.

The search for effective treatment and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders first gained national attention in the mid-1990s, when the shift away from punitive detention was exemplified by what are called "balanced and restorative justice" policies, which seek to bring all parties -- offender, victim and community -- into the response to juvenile crime. While giving victims and the community opportunities for involvement and input, these policies proactively sought to redirect offenders by guiding them to recognize and repair the harm they had caused and to increase their skills and abilities.

At the same time, recognition that detention could in reality work against successful youth rehabilitation and worsen outcomes for moderate-risk and low-risk youth shifted emphasis toward community-based programs. (See my 2010 account in this space of New York State's challenges in closing youth detention facilities.) As a result of that changing emphasis, the periodic census of juvenile facilities compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice has shown declines in every state.

The council's resolution points to the deepest implications of brain science since the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating life sentences without parole for crimes committed by adolescents: If we recognize that adolescents are different from adult offenders, should we not shape policies and practice to reflect their developmental stage and re-shape probation practice to reflect both the reality and the potential for successful paths to adulthood?

The council "has stepped up to this leadership challenge, recognizing that it is the critical first step in propelling these systems," says Robert G. Schwartz, a visiting fellow at the Stoneleigh Foundation and co-founder and long-time co-director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Law Project. "Just as balanced and restorative justice required significant re-tooling of policy, personnel and practice, developmentally appropriate probation will as well."

No one reading this will underestimate the complexity of driving to the front line the changes outlined by the council. They are complex, requiring re-thinking of job descriptions and caseloads for probation officers, reallocating funding toward community-based services, and developing sophisticated application of risk-management approaches that recognize that few youth -- as is true of people dealing with addiction -- accomplish instant turnarounds in behavior. As Schwartz observes, the toughest challenge will be to help judges and senior probation officers move from boilerplate conditions of probation to helping a youth who has gotten into trouble meet positive expectations and goals.

Fortunately, models testing these changes already exist, and many probation offices are tackling the work of transformation, often with the support of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is supporting work in two "probation transformation" sites, in Lucas County/Toledo, Ohio, and Pierce County/Tacoma, Wash., and it is hoped that additional model counties will emerge to test and validate new practices, making the changes easier to embrace elsewhere.

The council is pointing the way to important, evidence-based shifts in practice with transformative upside potential for youth who deserve the opportunity to hit the re-set button in their lives. Our communities will benefit from their success.