Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008

Introducing the Issue
Laurence Steinberg


American juvenile justice policy is in a period of transition. After a decade of declining juvenile crime rates, the moral panic that fueled the "get-tough" reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s—reforms that eroded the boundaries between juvenile and criminal court and exposed juvenile offenders to increasingly harsh punishments —has waned. State legislatures across the country have reconsidered punitive statutes they enacted with enthusiasm not so many years ago. What we may be seeing now is a pendulum that has reached its apex and is slowly beginning to swing back toward more moderate policies, as politicians and the public come to regret the high economic costs and ineffectiveness of the punitive reforms and the harshness of the sanctions.

Several concrete indicators of this shift are noteworthy. First, in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2005 Roper v. Simmons opinion abolishing the juvenile death penalty, several state legislatures have repealed, or are considering repealing, statutes imposing sentences of life without parole on juvenile murderers.1 Other states have scaled back, often in response to mounting economic costs, automatic transfer laws that send youth to the adult criminal system by statutory exclusion.2 Many states have increased funding for community-based treatment programs as alternatives to institutional placement.3 In a few states where youth under eighteen are prosecuted in adult criminal court instead of juvenile court, promising efforts are under way to increase the age to eighteen, as it is in most states.4 Finally, several states have expanded procedural protection for juveniles in criminal court by enacting statutory provisions authorizing findings of incompetence to stand trial on the basis of developmental immaturity.5 Although many of the punitive reforms of the 1990s still remain in place, a policy shift appears to have taken place.

Several developments have converged to change the direction of the nation's youth crime policy. Among the most important was the steady decline in juvenile crime beginning in 1994. In the same way that the upward trend in juvenile violence during the 1980s set the stage for the spate of punitive legislation during the 1990s, this downward trend has opened the door to discussions about returning to more moderate policies. Advocates for reform also have been successful in focusing media and political attention on a broad range of emerging social science evidence about adolescent development and juvenile crime. Editorials and op-eds in local and national newspapers have pointed to this evidence in arguing that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults, that juvenile offenders should be given a second chance, that the public supports rehabilitative efforts, and, perhaps most important, that trying juveniles as adults is simply not cost-effective. Evidence of the high economic cost to the government of the wholesale incarceration of juveniles with adults—together with studies finding that adolescents released from adult correctional facilities are more likely to re-offend than those sentenced to juvenile facilities—have influenced the public debate.6

Those who applaud the trend toward justice policies that recognize the differences between adolescents and adults may be heartened by these developments, but they should not naively assume that this trend will proceed unabated. Juvenile crime rates, which have risen and fallen cyclically for four decades, will likely rise again, though perhaps not to the extremes of the early 1990s. Indeed, although rates continue to be low, they have crept up recently; in the past year or two, violent crime by juveniles has edged above the 2004 rates, which were the lowest in nearly two decades.7

It is too early to tell whether recent reports of an uptick in juvenile crime indicate a reversal of the downward trend that the United States enjoyed for well over a decade, or, instead, a transient fluctuation. But stories about rising juvenile crime rates have begun to appear with increasing frequency in newspapers around the country, and publicity about juvenile crime quite often triggers swings in policy. If the current upturn in juvenile offending is indeed the beginning of a worrisome trend, it will take only a couple of widely publicized juvenile crimes and a few outspoken pundits and politicians to push the pendulum back in the other direction. That is how tenuous and reactive juvenile justice policymaking has been in recent years.

I have set the stage for this volume in this way to emphasize how important it is to ground the discussion about the future of juvenile justice in a solid evidence base rather than have it shaped by the "crime of the month" or a moral panic. Only relatively recently, however, has the evidence base become both broad enough and deep enough to inform the discussion. To be sure, researchers have for some time now been accumulating a substantial literature on the causes of juvenile crime, a topic that was deliberately excluded from this volume, precisely because the findings from this research are well known among scientists and policymakers alike. What has been in short supply is systematic research on the topics addressed in this volume: the ways in which normative adolescent development can guide sensible policymaking, the reliability of assessing juveniles' risk for re-offending and amenability to treatment, the prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse in the juvenile offender population, the distinctive characteristics of female juvenile offenders, the extent and causes of disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, the impact of trying and sanctioning juveniles as adults, and the effectiveness of interventions designed to prevent or treat delinquency. As the articles in this volume make clear, although much remains to be learned, researchers now know enough about all of the topics covered in this volume—with the possible exception of female juvenile offending—to offer some evidence-based perspectives on policy and practice.

Within any field of public policy there is always some gap between rhetoric and reality, and between science and practice, but the gulf is especially wide where juvenile justice is concerned. To help close this gap, in 1997 the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation established the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. This volume of The Future of Children grew out of the MacArthur Network's activities; all of the contributors have had some connection with that enterprise, either as members of the network or as scientists whose work the network funded.

The overarching goal of the MacArthur Network has been to consider the ways in which scientific knowledge about adolescent development and juvenile crime could inform policy and practice within the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Over the course of the network's tenure, this broad aim led its members to pose a wide variety of policy questions, many of which are addressed in the articles in this volume. Are adolescents different from adults—cognitively, emotionally, and socially—in ways that bear on their criminal responsibility, their competence to stand trial as defendants, and the appropriate venue (juvenile court or adult court) for the adjudication of their crimes? What does research reveal about juveniles' capacity to change—in juvenile justice parlance, their "amenability to treatment"—and about how to predict which juveniles desist from crime, either on their own or as a result of the justice system's efforts to change them, and which ones recidivate? What are the specific challenges to policy and practice presented by the disproportionate contact of ethnic minority youth with the justice system, the increasing number of female juvenile offenders, and the large numbers of juveniles in the system with substance abuse and other mental health problems?

The MacArthur Network brought to its work a particular perspective that is reflected in all of the contributions to this volume, three elements of which are especially noteworthy. First, all contributors to the volume start from the premise that adolescents are different from adults in ways that ought to be taken into account in crafting sensible and effective policy. That theme is explicit in the article by Elizabeth Scott and myself, which presents a developmental perspective on juvenile justice, but it comes into play in several other articles, most notably those by Edward Mulvey and Anne-Marie Iselin (on assessment), Jeffrey Fagan (on jurisdictional boundary), and Peter Greenwood (on prevention and intervention). The scientific study of adolescent development has burgeoned in the past two decades, but its findings have not yet influenced juvenile justice policy nearly as much as they should.

Second, we take the stance that policy and practice in the juvenile justice system should be guided by solid evidence. Much of what policymakers and the public believe to be true just isn't so. For example, contrary to widespread belief, as Elizabeth Cauffman notes, the causes of crime among male and female offenders are far more similar than different; as Peter Greenwood points out, there is no truth to the notion that, when it comes to delinquency prevention, "nothing works"; and, as explained by Alex Piquero, the causes of disproportionate minority contact are far more complicated than is often claimed both by those who insist that disparities in contact with the system are entirely due to racial bias on the part of the system and by others who contend that the disparities simply reflect racial differences in criminal involvement.

Third, to be effective, the juvenile justice system must be better integrated into the larger network of public institutions and agencies that deal with children, youth, and families—most important, those that provide education, child protective services, and mental health treatment. The antisocial acts that bring young people into contact with the justice system are often accompanied by other problems, most of which the justice system is ill-equipped to address. Among the most prevalent of these problems are mental illness, discussed by Thomas Grisso, and substance abuse, discussed by Laurie Chassin; child maltreatment and difficulties in school are not discussed in this volume, but they are also important. The nation's failure to address these problems, whether because of poor coordination between systems, inadequate resources, or inter-agency turf wars, is one reason so many youngsters enter, exit, and re-enter the justice system through what many observers have correctly described as a revolving door.