The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

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John Last 1Over the last few decades politicians have advocated for stricter sentencing guidelines and for trying more juveniles as adults. These decisions have been largely driven by public fear and a desire by elected officials to be seen as “tough on crime.”

They do not rely on evidence-based research, one of the least used methods for determining juvenile justice policy.

Some of these attitudes seem to be changing though. Over the last few years, research has generated data that are beginning to be acknowledged by policy makers. One such study is Pathways to Desistance, sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with many other groups interested in effective juvenile justice practices. The study followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 for seven years following their conviction.

Several interesting conclusions have been drawn from the study, as outlined in an OJJDP fact sheet prepared by Edward P. Mulvey, the lead researcher. According to the fact sheet, “Most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention.” This seems to point to the idea that as people mature they tend to make better decisions. This applies even to those who commit terrible crimes.

Another conclusion of the study is that longer stays in juvenile facilities do not lower the risk of reoffending when compared to placing the youths on probation. In fact, the group with the lowest level of offending actually tended to increase their criminality the longer they were kept in confinement. A better approach was community based supervision, which increased participation in school and work, and which led to lower rates of involvement with the juvenile system. Increasing the time that the juvenile spent in community based supervision led to even lower rates of reoffending.

The study also supports the efficacy of substance-abuse treatment. Even when taking into account the types of offenses, race and socioeconomic status, treatment that included strong family involvement led to a decrease in criminal behavior. One finding of the study is that the prevalence of drug use among juvenile offenders is three to four times higher than in the general population. Thirty seven percent of the males had been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Dr. Mulvey suggests that joining substance abuse treatment with community-based supervision may lead to greater reduction in offending over the short and long term.

The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book says that in 2007 (the last year listed) 86,927 juveniles were in detention. According to Models for Change, a website devoted to juvenile justice reform, seventy percent of these are held in state-run facilities, at an average cost of $240.99 a day to house. States are looking for ways to save money, and evidenced-based policies can help meet that goal. They are certainly a better choice than programs that are ineffective and that may actually increase crime.

I hope that studies like this will be taken into account when new policies are being decided. Juvenile life without parole, automatically trying juveniles as adults, and imposition of mandatory minimums on young offenders should all be revisited in light of studies such as Pathways to Desistance. Along with the latest research in adolescent brain development these real world studies point to a new way of approaching juvenile crime. Perhaps we can begin to salvage these kids instead of throwing them away.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

  1. A.A.A. would like to invite you to participate in our Truth about Yoth Campaign.

    Here at Advocates for Abandoned Adolescents we do our absolute best to ensure that the voices of incarcerated youth and their families get allocated a responsible reform to America’s Juvenile Justice.
    Our Truth about youth Campaign seeks to hear from youth that have been prosecuted upto the age of 18yrs as an adult, as well as their family and friends, to collect their stories in order to understand their experiences, perspectives and recomendations for change in the Adult criminal Justice System.
    Advocates for Abandoned Adolescents will use this information to identify patterns and trends that are worthy of further research that are specific to harmful effects on adolescents in the adult criminal justice system.

    In addition, we seek to use your voices to communicate to policy makers and the public the real life impact that the Adult Criminal Justice System has on youth.
    For we are endeavoured to bring the stories into brand new and diverse tapestry that paints the true circumstances and embodies the spirit of our approach to Juvenile Justice.
    If you are interested in sharing your story please contact us.
    Thank You.

  2. EBP’s have been studied in both controlled clinical trials as well as larger treatment environments, but don’t always work for all youth.
    For example, according to researchers Stanley Huey, Jr and Antonio Polo,15 cognitive behavioral therapy (a commonly referenced EBP for youth in the justice system) is a moderately effective EBP for Latino and African-American youth. It has not been shown to be effective for other ethnicities (such as Pacific Islanders and Native Americans). This notion of limited utility of EBP’s for communities of color is a significant issue. Academics and researchers with the funds and ability to conduct randomized clinical trials believe these treatments are fundamentally appropriate for all races and ethnicities, while communities of color claim most of the trials are conducted on well educated and resourced White people and therefore are not appropriate for their communities.
    In response, one technique being used by various
    practitioners is adaptation. Adaptations take an EBP and adapt it for language, ethnic matching of the clinician or geographic setting. Indeed, Ken Martinez, Psy.D16 has introduced the notion of
    Community Defined Evidence (CDE) which involves practices that yield positive results as determined by community consensus but have not been measured empirically. Some practitioners reject adaptations claiming they vary too much from the original EBP dictates and are therefore too dissimilar to maintain fidelity and trustworthy results.
    This debate has tremendous consequences regarding alternatives to detention for youth of color. Many community based organizations (CBO’s) are not able to conduct the randomized trials necessary to become an EBP, yet understand the total ecology of the
    neighborhood, family and youth. CBO’s make the case that they understand the complexities of the lives of youth of color and are able to get positive behavior results. These are called “promising practices” and should be recognized and encouraged.

    From Non-Judicial Drivers into the Juvenile Justice System for Youth of Color.