Failure of the Juvenile Justice System
January 12, 2017 7:42 PM   Subscribe

What are some good resources to see facts about the harms of the juvenile justice system?

In particular: what percentage of children in the juvenile justice system have trauma in their backgrounds? I found a study in pubmed about a high percentage having trauma, but I am interested in anything else people know about.

What percentage of children in the juvenile justice system are dealing with poverty?

What is the demographic difference (poverty, race etc) in the children who are diverted from the system at first offense vs forced into it?

I am trying to make a compelling case to a group of people who are invested in "tough on crime" attitudes and I'd like to do my best to make a brief but fact driven summary of some of the problems with this ideology.

-Any other links with facts you think would be helpful with this topic, or that discuss evidence of alternative programs success (such as pre-emptively helping families and reduction in youth offending rates). Thank you!
posted by xarnop to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I worked for a family law attorney who was passionate about juvenile law. The biggest flaw in the juvenile law system (at least in Harris county circa 2004) is that it's designed for privileged kids. Their goal is to divert kids from the criminal justice pipeline. But to be eligible, kids need to prove they have a healthy environment to support them in community service, counseling or probation. If they come from an unstable or obviously traumatic household, they are pushed into the system.

One dramatic case was a pair of brothers who were arrested but tried separately. The judge signed off on various diversion programs for one of the brothers. The other was denied, because he would be living in an unsafe environment with his felon brother. (It was a felony pled down to a misdemeanor, but would only reflect as a misdemeanor at the conclusion of his probation). So one brother was able to get a high school degree and rejoin society. The other was at a juvenile detention facility, where he would be transferred to prison at age 18, and be eligible for parole at 25.
posted by politikitty at 8:37 PM on January 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, the juvenile justice system is messed up. It's basically a junior version of the adult justice system. Some supreme court justice commented recently that kids face the same risk of bodily harm as the typical adult in jail.

And the thing about it is that kids who enter the system are at higher risks for recidivism by certain studies. This is against the entire logic of it since it is intended to be partly rehabilitative (to a greater degree than jail, where the aim is punishment as a deterrent). There is evidence that other countries that use restorative justice based approaches have much more success. Or specific therapies that use community resources to help the child complete their education and meet normative milestones.

Obviously, the greatest risk factor (according to a study done by the federal government) is poverty, coupled with living in ghetto-like neighborhoods where there is little social mobility, maternal health is poorer, and children have more exposure to lead and poorer education (not to mention less food!). Adolescents are also more likely to commit crimes in groups because they are impulsive and look to peers to fulfill a need for belonging.

Many people have looked at the question of why black children are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Part of it is that crime is genuinely overrepresented in impoverished neighborhoods and more black children grow up poor. It is also possible that black children and adolescents are picked up by the police more often. Across every stage of the process, from being picked up to charged to sent to sentencing, the proportion of minorities sentenced to the most serious crimes grows, which points to bias.

There was a 2009 study by some social scientists that found that over the age of 10, black children are judged to be an average of 4 years older than their white counterparts and more "guilty." Obviously, the older a juvenile is when they commit a crime, the more serious the sentence may be. In addition, sentencing is based on case workers' reports etc. Some of it depends on the perception of potential recidivism, so the perception of "guiltiness" obviously plays a role.

I can send you the links for this if you memail me!
posted by benadryl at 9:47 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't have anything immediate to give you, but if you're looking for more resources, I'd encourage you to reach out to someone at the Annie E. Casey foundation, which has been intensely involved in this issue for decades.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:01 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another great resource is the Equal Justice Initiative. The founder and head, Bryan Stevenson, wrote a fabulous book about death penalty cases in the US and includes a bit on juvenile sentencing. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by stillmoving at 4:42 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Te National Academy of Sciences released a 2013 report on Reforming Juvenile Justice. It looks pretty comprehensive, plus it's likely more balanced than the information you'll get from advocates on either side. In addition to the 14 page summary, there's a 40 page chapter on Current Practice in the Juvenile Justice System.

Some excerpts from the summary:

"...the juvenile justice system’s heavy reliance on containment, confinement, and control removes youth from their families, peer groups, and neighborhoods—the social context of their future lives—and deprives them of the opportunity to learn to deal with life’s challenges."

"Economically disadvantaged and minority youth are particularly affected by a juvenile justice system in which they are disproportionately represented. There is evidence that 'race matters' above and beyond the characteristics of an offense. With few exceptions, data consistently show that youth of color have been overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:07 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

DC's Youth Rehabilitation Act has been much in the news lately. The Washington Post did a series on it, focusing on violent offenders who were given second chances and went on to commit more violence. This article links to that series and discusses criticism thereof.
posted by exogenous at 7:22 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not sure if you are only interested in research into the American system, but if not, you could look at the UK Taylor review into the youth justice system. I've put some quotes below about the needs of children in the youth justice system.
Among the children now in the youth justice system are high numbers of black, Muslim and white working class boys; many are in care, and mental and other health problems, and learning difficulties, are common. These groups are particularly over-represented in custody, where over 40% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, a large proportion have previously been in care ... and more than a third have a diagnosed mental health disorder. Many of the children in the system come from some of the most dysfunctional and chaotic families where drug and alcohol misuse, physical and emotional abuse and offending is common. Often they are victims of crimes themselves. Though children’s backgrounds should not be used as an excuse for their behaviour, it is clear that the failure of education, health, social care and other agencies to tackle these problems have contributed to their presence in the youth justice system.
Many children who offend or come to the notice of the police do so because they have learning difficulties, or mental health or speech and communication problems ...
More than a third of children in the youth custodial estate have a diagnosed mental health disorder, often layered with several other needs, making them a complex and vulnerable cohort to assess and treat. These figures may well underestimate the problem, because the chaotic lives led by so many of the children in the secure estate means they have never been referred to mental health services, or have failed to turn up for appointments. Children in custody often also display poor physical health. Many will not have visited a doctor or dentist for years, and as a result some arrive in custody with undiagnosed sight or hearing problems which will have affected their education. Many will have problems associated with poor diets or drug and alcohol use.
Half of 15-17 year olds entering YOIs have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a 7-11 year old. Around 40% of young people surveyed in under-18 YOIs reported that they had not been to school since they were aged 14, and nearly nine out of 10 said they had been excluded from school at some point.
posted by paduasoy at 3:42 PM on January 13, 2017

Just FYI, the DC Youth Rehabilitation Act doesn't have anything to do with the juvenile justice system. It's a law that only applies to people charged as adults, in the adult criminal system.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange is one of the best resources available on all aspects of the juvenile justice system, including a lot of the kind of hard data and comparative studies you're asking about. They're academics. For policy/advocacy, here's some information from the Annie E. Casey Foundation about the negative effects of juvenile jails. Similarly, good information from the MacArthur Foundation on how kids are treated in the system, and the collateral consequences of their involvement.

The National Center for State Courts is an organization made up of judges and court administrators that has recommended some substantial reforms, which may be harder to dismiss as partisan or biased than advocacy groups would be. The Department of Justice has also studied this issue under multiple administrations and published a lot of reports. All of the modern research in criminology, psychology, neurology, sociology, etc., supports the idea that "superpredators" are a myth and that most children have a tremendous capacity to learn and grow and mature into productive, law-abiding adults with appropriate care and treatment.
posted by decathecting at 4:30 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is a longer-form source, but the book Our America (and the several podcasts produced by those students - here's a YouTube link) do a fantastic job of showing the effect of living in a housing project on the South Side of Chicago did on lots of young people. This is by the producer of the original podcast. It includes the story of 5-year-old Eric Morse, who was pushed to his death by two young kids (10 or 11 years old, I think?); the boys who did it were from the same community as the boys who wrote Our America.

I would also attack this with research about the adolescent brain and how it doesn't develop the ability to reason and weigh consequences until the later teens, at the earliest. That means so many kids are sentenced as adults when they are in NO WAY like an adult.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:12 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

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