A New Juvenile Justice System: Total Reform for a Broken System

A New Juvenile Justice System: Total Reform for a Broken System

Editor: Nancy E. Dowd
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 2015. 400p.
Reviewer: Jennifer H. Peck | January 2016

In 2010 and 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on two cases that specifically influenced the sentencing outcomes of juvenile offenders. In the decisions of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court stated that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles convicted of homicide under the age of eighteen to mandatory life without parole (LWOP). In regards to these decisions, and from the position that the current juvenile justice system is a failure, Nancy E. Dowd’s edited book, A New Juvenile Justice System: Total Reform for a Broken System, is a compilation of academics, practitioners, researchers, and activists who focus on re-visioning and completely restructuring the juvenile justice system. A common theme across all chapters suggests an entire replacement of the current juvenile justice system. The new vision focuses on serving and supporting youth through their adolescent development, with the end result of producing law-abiding citizens who enhance communities through increased public safety. The main goal of the reformed system focuses on simultaneously increasing youth well-being and public safety by moving away from a traditional and correctional atmosphere, to a rehabilitative and developmental perspective.

From this perspective, the authors of the book concentrate on three overall ideas. First, the chapters discuss how equality, freedom, liberty, and self-determination can transform the juvenile justice system. A number of chapters highlight concerns about racial/ethnic disparities in juvenile justice decision-making, mental health issues of at-risk and system involved youth, the potential harms of prosecutorial discretion, consequences of juvenile transfer, Miranda rights and police interactions with youth, issues surrounding unequal access to legal counsel, and specific problems that females, immigrants, and LGBT youth face throughout juvenile court processing. The second idea focuses on how a reformed system can improve the odds that youth who have been labeled as “delinquent” can successfully evolve into adulthood. In particular, one section of the book focuses exclusively on how families and communities can support children after they come in contact with the justice system, how to deal with “crossover youth” (children who are in the dependency system but have also been taken into state custody), breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, and what steps need to be taken to provide formally incarcerated youth the opportunity to continue their education in mainstream high schools rather than in alternative schools.

The final idea focuses on how a new juvenile justice system can contribute to reforms that detain and incarcerate fewer youth, through the use of evidence-based family and community interventions to increase the likelihood for prosocial youth development. Various chapters call for the end of detaining and incarcerating youth, with the exception of violent juveniles with a history of prior offending. The authors describe and advocate for the use of effective programs that involve a youth’s family, school, peers, and community network to subsequently decrease recidivism. Overall, the three core goals of a new juvenile justice system would involve the education, health care, mental health, and child welfare systems as key preventive interventions to address the needs and “warning signs” of each child prior to their engaging in illegal behaviors. If a youth is already involved with the juvenile justice system, the authors suggest that policies and programs target the juvenile, their family, and the surrounding community, with the goals of rehabilitation and avoidance of collateral consequences (e.g., unable to apply for college, employment barriers, housing restrictions, etc.) based on earlier court involvement.

One important contribution of this edited book is the discussion of how the relationship between race and class results in the overrepresentation of poor, minority youth in the juvenile justice system. Specifically, the text contends that youth who reside in these communities need the most help from the system, to avoid their suffering the worst outcomes when compared to other racial/ethnic and social class groups. For example, the first section of the volume “sets the stage” for the entire book by describing the presence of racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile court processing, and then deconstructs potential reasons for this occurrence (e.g., historical racial oppression). Suggestions are provided for how the system can respond to minority youth, families, and communities in a fashion that centers on child well-being. The main argument is that if the juvenile justice system can serve and help disadvantaged minority youth, then the system will be able to serve all children, regardless of race/ethnicity, and social class. Therefore, the juvenile justice system should serve youth by eliminating incarceration (with a few exceptions), develop family and community-level solutions for positive adolescent development, and support better outcomes for education, mental health, and health care systems that work with this particular population.

A second important contribution of the book is that the authors discuss the need for support and care services for both at-risk youth and juveniles already involved in the juvenile justice system. Above and beyond removing youth from the system (which the authors argue is an important component, but not enough to influence change), various chapters suggest different alternatives to detaining and incarcerating this especially vulnerable population. For example, the second section of the volume advocates for how a new juvenile justice system can serve youth as well as promote their well-being. In particular, one chapter in the second section discusses the deinstitutionalization of juvenile offenders that has been happening over recent years. While this finding is seen as an improvement, it is suggested that reform efforts need to focus on “doing some good” instead of “doing less harm.” The authors describe how detained and incarcerated youth are subjected to excessive use of force and physical abuse by staff, and rarely receive rehabilitative services. Instead of only decreasing the occurrence of these negative situations, it is suggested that objective risk-assessment tools and weekly detention reviews to decrease length of stay should be mandatory.

Paralleling this specific contribution, the book also includes chapters that focus on mental health issues with youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Despite the high prevalence of youth with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, substance abuse, and bipolar disorder, many youth are not diagnosed as needing these services until after contact with the justice system. As is argued here, the availability of services to this population can promote child well-being and decrease the likelihood of offending. The authors describe positive directions for change based on the mandatory use of universal screening procedures, greater use of diversion programs, and providing mental health services to youth.

A third important contribution of the book is the suggestion to the reader to think about their own base assumptions, values, beliefs, and the guiding principles of the juvenile justice system. For example, one chapter poses the question about why juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adult offenders. Inherently, it would be expected that the reader might think about concepts such as “culpability,” “development,” “peer influences,” and “maturity.” Instead, however, it is suggested that while we should be treating juvenile offenders differently from adult offenders based on prior empirical research, adult offenders should also not be treated the way that they currently are in the adult system.

From the perspective that the juvenile justice system is broken, the volume makes a case for why and how the current juvenile justice system is not working, and is actually failing youth. Each chapter provides various suggestions for policies, programs, and interventions to completely reform the system. Furthermore, the text forces readers to think about public perceptions of punishment and retribution in the juvenile justice system, versus the use of rehabilitative programs. I was left with a lingering question however: How realistic is it to assume that the current juvenile justice system can be replaced with this radically different vision? With the exception of the chapter by Richard E. Redding titled “Lost in Translation No More: Marketing Evidence-Based Policies for Reducing Juvenile Crime,” too little attention is paid to how the various reforms can actually be brought about, and with what resources.

This book should appeal to a number of different types of readers. It is a timely and important contribution in shedding light on the various prevention, intervention, and rehabilitative mechanisms surrounding the juvenile justice system.

Jennifer H. Peck, Assistant Professor, University of Central Florida

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