What J. Edgar Hoover and Scared Straight get Wrong about Juvenile Justice

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Recently, I wrote about how locking up youth in juvenile hall only increased the chances that they would reoffend. This was based on the new study, “No Place for Kids.”

Another report that came out earlier this year, “Evidence-Based Interventions for Juvenile Offenders and Juvenile Justice Policies that Support Them,” takes a look at what works and what doesn’t. According to the study, only 5 percent of eligible youthful offenders are treated with an evidence-based service. Evidence-Based services are ones that have been demonstrated to be successful.

Many juvenile offender services are not effective and some methods, like “shock incarceration treatment,” such as Scared Straight, actually worsen anti-social behavior. Unfortunately, with TV reality shows touting such interventions, communities continue to support these high-profile, ineffective programs. The thinking is: ‘We will just scare them into changing their ways.’ Only by looking at the studies do we see that mixing youthful offenders with adult criminals, or with like-minded peers, only increases the chances that they will commit another crime.

What works to turn kids’ lives around?

Research shows that addressing key risk factors like improving family functioning, developing relationships with caring adults, and improving school performance in the youth’s natural environment decreases criminal behavior. Behavioral treatment such as multi-systemic therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) not only improve outcomes for children but are less expensive. Unfortunately, time and time again, we see juvenile justice policy driven by communities that don’t like the idea of “coddling” juvenile offenders and want them locked up. Their focus is punishment, not change.

Digging through my files, I came across an article written by J. Edgar Hoover for the defunct The American Magazine in January 1955. In his article, “You Can Help Stop Juvenile Crime,” the former FBI director warned that the undermining of traditions, customs and a lack of respect was creating kids who did not recognize the difference between good and evil.

Quoting J. Edgar Hoover:

There are several other steps we can take to reduce delinquency at once. One of these is to stop mollycoddling juvenile criminals. It is against the instincts of most Americans to get tough with children. But the time has come when we must impose sterner penalties and restrictions on young lawbreakers for the protection of the law-abiding.

I do not mean that I would favor imprisoning every boy and girl found guilty of a minor offense. I agree with those judges who hesitate to send juveniles to penal institutions or reform schools, which neither reform nor rehabilitate youngsters. But it is imperative for those same judges to impose much stricter conditions on the release of juvenile offenders, because, time after time, those freed under slack supervision or in custody of their parents promptly return to their criminal ways.

Surprisingly, Hoover’s myths remain today:

  • Juvenile crime is increasing — when the truth is that it has been dropping for years;
  • Scaring kids will steer them away from crime — when studies show it only encourages them; and
  • Locking kids up deters them from committing future crimes—when statistics show that 80 percent will commit another crime if incarcerated.

We need to change the focus from punishment to creating life change through evidence-based treatment. Let’s look at what really works and what doesn’t when we create systems to address youth crime.


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. It originally appeared in San Jose Inside.


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