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Juvenile Justice: Community Treatment

Issues And Trends

Juvenile justice professionals and the general public continue to debate how best to address problems of juvenile delinquency. Tensions exist between those who favor a "get tough" or "lock 'em up" approach and those who favor using the least restrictive alternatives. Beginning in the late 1990s some have advocated the introduction of a radically different paradigm, restorative justice. This last section examines the role of the community in delinquency treatment in terms of these issues.

Institutional vs. community treatment. Advocates of community treatment advance several arguments in support of its use. Compared with institutional placements, community programs are less costly, less disruptive to families, and have the potential to address the youths' delinquency in the natural contexts in which it is likely to occur. Moreover, those youths placed in institutions eventually return to their communities, and, unless steps are taken to address the community context or provide community support to the youths upon their return, recidivism is likely. Community treatment rests on several values-based and theoretical assumptions—that delinquent behavior is caused and maintained by a combination of factors, including environmental influences; that the probability of delinquency is reduced through strengthening a youth's bonds to the family, school, and other community institutions; and that families or family-like settings usually provide the best context for rehabilitation.

Those who question the appropriateness of community treatments point to the increased risk to public safety, the difficulty in altering patterns of peer group behaviors, and the challenges to and limitations of some families in providing adequate structure for their children as reasons to prefer institutional placement. They suggest that institutional placements protect communities by incapacitating offenders, act as both specific and general deterrents to delinquency, and foster rehabilitation through structure and discipline. There is ample evidence that institutional placements do incapacitate offenders. There is less support for the supposed deterrent and rehabilitative effects of incarceration.

Evidence accumulating over several decades indicates that the best juvenile justice systems are those with an extensive range of options at various levels of restrictiveness, but that many states and counties have too few options and end up relying too much on institutions. States vary considerably in the extent to which they rely on institutional placements. For example, the 1997 secure custody rate of committed delinquents in Louisiana was 459 per 100,000 juveniles age ten and older; comparable rates per 100,000 population were 386 in California, 175 in Missouri, 110 in Massachusetts, and 44 in Vermont (Snyder and Sickmund). Several studies have shown that between 40 and 60 percent of youths held in training schools in several states do not appear to be serious or chronic offenders by most reasonable definitions. Many have never committed a felony-level offense, but have had difficulties in various other placement settings, frustrating local probation officers and the courts.

Early evaluation studies in Massachusetts, which closed its juvenile training schools in 1972 and replaced them with a regional network of community-based alternatives, revealed an overall higher recidivism rate, except in areas where a full array of alternatives were available (Coates, Miller, and Ohlin). A later reevaluation found that once a well-structured system of dispositional options had been developed in Massachusetts, results compared favorably in terms of recidivism outcomes with other states that relied more heavily on secure institutions (Krisberg, Austin, and Steele). Favorable results for community treatment have also been observed in several other states.

Community treatment alternatives even hold promise for serious and violent juvenile offenders (SVJ), those adjudicated for major crimes against persons or property, usually thought to require confinement in secure institutions. A meta-analysis of more than two hundred evaluations of interventions for serious and violent juvenile offenders shows that the most effective ones involve interpersonal skills training, cognitive-behavioral treatment, or teaching family home programs (Lipsey and Wilson). As summarized by Rolf Loeber and David Farrington, "Interventions for SVJ offenders often have to be multimodal to address multiple problems, including law breaking, substance use and abuse, and academic and family problems" (p. xxiii).

Restorative justice. The adult criminal justice system is an adversarial system in which the state exercises its authority to exact retribution from criminal offenders whose guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendants, in turn, are guaranteed certain rights or due process protections in the determination of guilt or innocence. Justice is accomplished when the punishment meted out fits the crime. The juvenile court movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, on the other hand, was based on a philosophy of parens patriae, in which the state assumed the responsibilities of a parent when the natural family was unable or unwilling to do so. Rather than the strict pursuit of justice, the goal of the original juvenile court was to act in the best interests of the child. During the course of the twentieth century, however, as described elsewhere in this volume, the Supreme Court recognized that the juvenile court did not always act in the child's best interest, and, in a series of decisions, gradually instituted for children many of the same due process protections afforded to adults.

Neither the adult criminal court nor the juvenile court appear to place primary emphasis on restoration, that is, repairing harm done to victims and providing offenders a way to regain full community status. The paradigm of restorative justice embraces these emphases. As outlined by Daniel Van Ness, restorative justice rests on three principles:

  1. Justice requires that we work to heal victims, offenders and communities that have been injured by crime;
  2. Victims, offenders and communities should have the opportunity for active involvement in the justice process as early and as fully as possible;
  3. We must rethink the relative roles and responsibilities of the government and the community. In promoting justice, government is responsible for preserving a just order and the community for establishing peace (pp. 8–9).

In the context of juvenile justice, restorative justice principles may be found in a variety of programs, such as victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, teen court (in which young people enact the roles of judge, attorneys, and jury to resolve cases), and some forms of restitution and community service. There is disagreement among restorative justice advocates over whether involuntary sanctions (e.g., court-ordered punishment) can play a role in restorative justice (Bazemore and Walgrave), but clearly the emphasis is on repairing harm, reintegrating offenders, and involving all affected stakeholders in the process. A national project, directed by Gordon Bazemore and Mark Umbreit, is attempting to develop and test the application of restorative justice to juvenile justice in several jurisdictions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice: Community Treatment - Diversion, Pre-adjudication, Post-adjudication, Aftercare, Issues And Trends, Conclusion