Ten years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death sentences for crimes committed prior to age 18 were unconstitutional. This landmark decision was obviously significant for putting an end to an inhumane practice long rejected by virtually every other country.
Though relatively few individuals were actually affected by this decision, to someone like me — a parent who became a justice system reform advocate because my child’s life was profoundly and negatively altered by his unnecessary incarceration at age 14 — Roper was also significant because it offered hope that other harmful, misguided justice policies and practices could change.
Why? In Roper the court’s majority embraced recent research that clearly establishes that adolescents are different from adults: more impulsive, less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, highly influenced by peer pressure, disproportionately attracted to risky behavior but still developing and, therefore, capable of changing.
While these teenage characteristics are well known to parents struggling with youthful behavior, our justice system still largely operates as if adolescents are just physically smaller versions of adults. As a result, the system does many things awfully wrong, not the least of which is imposing adult sentences on adolescents, including life without parole and other draconian periods of confinement.
My Roper-inspired hopes sprang from a simple notion: If knowledge of human development can be applied to the most serious (and vengeance-inspiring) cases, as it was in Roper, then surely those same lessons could change how the system deals with less serious crimes. The court’s subsequent decisions limiting juvenile life-without-parole sentences bolstered my optimism that better-informed approaches to responding to youth who commit crimes might indeed emerge.
If parents of court-involved kids are asked what’s wrong with juvenile justice — and we rarely are — a couple of basic criticisms rise to the surface. First, the justice system relies on punishment as the primary deterrent to bad behavior, even though all parents know kids respond best to positive opportunities to change.
Second, the system continues to delude itself that its interventions are rehabilitative, that its use of confinement and supervision are constructive approaches that help kids get on the right track, when all the evidence reveals that juvenile corrections and probation are largely ineffective (if not downright counterproductive) in stimulating positive youth development.
These fundamental flaws in system design would not persist if parents were consulted, much less if we were designing the system. Unfortunately, the system, as it presently operates, is largely anti-family, typically blaming struggling households for their children’s behavior rather than trying to strengthen families to better fulfill their function as the primary socializing forces in their kids’ lives.
Some of the optimism I felt when Roper was decided has proven right. Youth incarceration has decreased dramatically over the past decade, unprecedented in this era of mass incarceration. There are even some innovative places that have made strides to reduce racial disparities in their systems.
New program models, all of which rely on family-focused interventions, have been shown to reduce recidivism and improve long-term outcomes of delinquent youth, especially compared to confinement or probation supervision. Several states have rolled back laws that push kids into adult courts and prisons. And, authoritative voices like the National Academy of Sciences have called for juvenile justice to take “a developmental approach,” essentially embracing the Supreme Court’s rationale in Roper and urging its application in all aspects of policy and practice.
But we are still far from operating a system that meets the “my child test,” (i.e., a system that all parents would have confidence in if our own kids were arrested and brought before the court). That system must be built upon three pillars or principles: a practical commitment to long-term child well-being, an unrelenting determination to eliminate racial inequities and to ensure fairness, and a full-blown embrace of family, youth and community engagement to both redesign and monitor the system.
A system built upon these notions would distinguish itself from the current status quo in critical ways. It would draw far fewer misbehaving youth into the courts. It would deploy resources to prioritize the most troubled and troubling youth, rather than its current one-size-fits-all approach.
It would stop serving as the default service provider for kids whose problems ought to be addressed by either other public systems (e.g., child welfare, mental health or education) or by community resources. It would confine far fewer youth than it does today and it would ensure that those who must be confined are held in safe, healthy and genuinely therapeutic environments.
Such a system is achievable, but it requires comprehensive system reform and that demands sustained political will. Fortunately, a new bipartisan consensus to abandon the failed policies and practices of the past few decades has now emerged, reinforcing the optimism originally kindled by the Roper decision.
On this 10th anniversary, we should not only celebrate that decision as a victory for basic human rights; we should also renew our commitment to realizing a juvenile justice system that truly reflects Roper’s underlying rationale.
Grace Bauer is executive director and co-founder of Justice for Families.