WASHINGTON, D.C.– For 40 years Robert Johnson, chair of the Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform at the National Research Council of the National Academies has worked with adolescents in the juvenile justice system. The hope, Johnson said, “was that they would learn something from [that experience] and return to society as productive individuals.”
But that has not been the case, according to Johnson.
The juvenile justice system has failed to consider young people’s development and many kids have been permanently scarred, said Johnson, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the New Jersey Medical School. Although we have learned a lot in recent years about adolescent brain development, he said, this knowledge still hasn’t moved into juvenile justice policy and practice.
The Research Council held a public briefing Monday on its report “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.” Speaking before an audience of advocates, academics, government officials and funders, expert panels discussed the report’s key conclusions, scientific foundations and implications.
The three interrelated objectives of the report are accountability, fairness and reduced recidivism, said Betty Chemers senior program officer at the Research Council. Some of its major conclusions, she said, are:
Youth, unlike adults, lack self regulation skills, are more influenced by peers, and are less able to make future-oriented decisions.
Science shows that pro-social peer experiences, opportunities for social development and parental support are critical to healthy development.
The juvenile justice system relies too heavily on separation and incarceration.
The pace of reform has been sluggish and uneven, in part because of a lack of quality data.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is the appropriate federal agency to support states and tribes seeking to implement a developmental approach.
Discussing his agency’s role in implementation, OJJDP Administrator Robert Listenbee said the report encapsulates what works and what doesn’t in the juvenile justice system and provides recommendations for moving forward. The report’s warnings are as telling as its recommendations, he added. Quoting from the report, he said that if a developmental approach is not taken, youth offending will increase and anti-social and deviant behavior will only be reinforced.
In response to the report, OJJDP has “moved decisively and directly to create an independent research body,” Listenbee said. He also highlighted OJJDP’s enabling legislation, which is still pending before Congress, noting its increased focus on disproportionate minority contact aligns with the report’s recommendations.
Listenbee also noted that OJJDP, which funded the publication, has gone back to the Research Council and asked for follow up reports on the current gaps in research, challenges in implementation and the cost and benefits of implementing a developmental approach.
Panelist Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, said we are in “a unique moment in time. We have a body of science and research that we didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago and this report reflects that.”
Regardless of OJJDP’s diminishing resources, the field continues to look to the agency for guidance, said Bilchik, who is also a past OJJDP administrator. “Making these findings a part of OJJDP’s reorganization,” he added, “will help [the agency] solidify its role in reforming juvenile justice.”
Richard Bonnie, vice-chair of the Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform and professor of law and medicine at the University of Virginia School of Law, concluded the briefing saying that enacting the report’s recommendations will not be a singular event, but a long journey that must be sustained with innovation, research and help from OJJDP.
Jessica R. Kendall, JD is co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm, and has authored several books, articles and practice guides on child protection and juvenile justice issues.