OP-ED: Keep Vigilant for Truth in Reforming Juvenile Justice

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John Lash

As juvenile justice reform moves forward around the country, certain words and phrases are increasingly being thrown about. We see calls for peer reviewed studies, evidence-based practices, demonstration of causal relationships and similar scientific sounding terms. People want to invest time and resources into programs with a real chance of working, and the sheen of objectivism seems to lend weight to evaluations of these programs.

I too want programs that work and that give us the best return on our investments, but I am also leery of an over reliance on scientific approaches, especially in the realm of social control and policy making that is based on a supposed understanding of human behavior. I am, and have been since an early age, a skeptic. I don’t consider myself to be needlessly critical, but in my own life and work I continually question my assumptions and biases.

Problems with peer review confirmation bias have long been known to influence which theories gain traction, and now cases of fraud, some quite extensive, are increasingly being unearthed in the research community. Another problem with the scientific approach is the prevalence of plain old errors or oversights. Mike Males pointed out in his recent opinion piece here on JJIE the failure of researchers to account for poverty in their estimations risk factors for criminal behavior. The implications of this are huge, and may take years to absorb. How much public policy is based on the concept that young people are more likely to commit crimes? Perhaps our efforts should be focused more on reducing poverty than on figuring out what is wrong with kids these days.

Similarly, theories are often advanced with certainty that is based not on rationalism but instead on ideology or personality. Consider John DiIulio’s “superpredator,” the mythical young, black, godless, gun-toting psychopath bent on mayhem. His imagined existence took on the aura of science, backed up by DiIulio, a professor of politics and public affairs and a member of the political science faculty at Princeton University, whose forecasts of the coming apocalypse led to tougher laws to combat juvenile crime. The strategies developed by states in reaction to his fear mongering are the very ones being dismantled today in the new wave of reform.

So I, a fan of science and rationalism, suggest that those involved in designing, carrying out, funding, and evaluating programs continually revisit the fundamental facts of the work of juvenile reform. It is easy to take shortcuts in the interest of ease and efficiency, and in the certainty that our beliefs about what is happening are correct. Let’s remain vigilant.

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