Nearly two decades after a spike in juvenile crime led states to adopt
tougher, more punitive juvenile justice policies, evidence suggests there are
ways of dealing with young offenders that are more effective and less costly
than prosecuting them as adults and imposing harsh sentences.
The number of youth under the age of 18 years sentenced to time in adult
prisons soared in the wake of "get tough" reforms that included widespread
legislation relaxing the requirements for transferring young offenders from juvenile
courts to adult criminal courts, where mandatory minimum sentences and other
factors make incarceration more likely. That population remains historically
high today, despite a recent decline in the number of youth sent to adult
The shift toward a more punitive approach toward youth justice has raised
several concerns. Criminal courts give little consideration to the nature of
adolescence, despite evidence that youth are not similar to adults in ways
important to determining culpability, such as having an under-developed ability
to understand the consequences of their actions. Research suggests that those
making important juvenile justice decisions rely largely on intuition rather
than evidence-based models when assessing the risks posed by juvenile offenders
and matching them with sanctions and interventions. Finally, studies in several
states suggest that laws that led greater numbers of young offenders to be
prosecuted as adults in criminal court have not lowered juvenile crime rates or
Although many of the punitive reforms that swept the nation in the 1990s
remain in place, there are signs that enthusiasm for such policies is weakening
as states begin to consider their effectiveness and cost. This special report
examines the reforms that reshaped juvenile justice in the United States, the
fairness and effectiveness of those reforms, and alternative policies and
interventions that show promise. It is largely based on a series of recent
studies published in The Future of Children, a collaboration of Princeton
University and The Brookings Institute.
Early juvenile justice systems in America began to appear at the dawn of
the 20th Century. The reformers who
established them did so with the believe that the nation needed to deal
compassionately with youth accused of crimes through a separate court that
considered them more worthy of rehabilitation than punishment and was focused
on steering them away from becoming repeat offenders.
As these juvenile courts developed over the following decades, specialized
facilities for young offenders were also established, such as juvenile
detention centers, training schools and centers that provided a structured
environment for addressing the educational, psychological and vocational needs
of children who had committed crimes.1
In addition, judicial decisions over that period provided juveniles charged
with crimes with many of the same legal protections found in adult courts to
ensure fair treatment under the law, including the right to legal counsel, the
right to confront and cross-examine witnesses and the privilege against
This trend began to shift in the late 1980s, when the nation experienced a
steady increase in juvenile crime, particularly violent crime. Between 1985 and
1995, the nation witnessed a nearly 80% rise in arrests of juveniles 17 years
old or younger for violent crimes, including murder, forcible rape and
aggravated assault.2 Contributing to public alarm
was the idea advanced by the news media and a few academics that a new
generation of young “super predators” had emerged that was more violent,
cold-hearted, and less amenable to rehabilitation than their predecessors.
Juveniles as Adults
The most widespread policy response to such concerns to enact new judicial
transfer statutes that made it easier or mandatory to send the cases of young
offenders charged with felonies to adult criminal courts. All but six states enacted
such statutes between 1992 and 1997.3 These statutes were typically
designed to increase the certainty, length and severity of punishment.
The momentum toward making it easier to try juvenile offenders in criminal
court was so strong that states continued to expand the reach of the court
through expanded transfer statutes even as juvenile crime across the nation
declined steadily and steeply, beginning around 1994. This trend included a
significant and prolonged decline in the number of juveniles arrested for
violent crimes, which challenged the validity of the “super predator” theory.
Between 1994 and 1998, for example, juvenile arrests for Violent Crime Index
offenses—murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assaulted—fell 19%
compared to a 6% decline in adults arrested for similar felonies.4
Today, all states today have adopted mechanisms to handle juveniles in
adult criminal court.
The most common is the judicial waiver, which is found in Pennsylvania and
45 other states. Such waivers authorize or require juvenile courts to waive
jurisdiction over certain criminal cases involving minors so they can be
prosecuted as adult in criminal courts. In 15 states, laws give prosecutors the
choice of whether juveniles charged with certain felonies are tried in juvenile
or criminal court. Pennsylvania and 28 other states exclude serious felonies
from being tried in juvenile court, requiring that they be sent straight to
Juvenile Offenders And Crime
Such statutes had a profound impact on the U.S. juvenile justice system. The
original intent of establishing a separate juvenile court was to keep
adolescents out of adult prisons, limit their exposure to adult criminal
activity and poor role models, and provide interventions aimed at diverting
them from further anti-social behavior and toward more positive outcomes.
Widespread revision of transfer and other juvenile jus- tice statutes in
the 1990s blurred the line between the juvenile and criminal courts. Expanded
transfer laws eliminated much of the discretion in charging young offenders.
Who prosecuted a case was determined more by the nature of the offense, not the
characteristics or needs of the individual juvenile offender.
These reforms led to greater numbers of juvenile of- fenders having their
cases heard in adult criminal courts that do not share the same emphasis on
rehabilitation found in the juvenile court system. Estimates suggest that the
cases of as many as 25 percent of juvenile offenders in the United States are adjudicated in
adult criminal courts.6
Unlike their colleagues in juvenile court, criminal court judges work under
federal and state laws that set rigid sentencing guidelines and prescribe
mandatory minimum sentences—rules that limit their ability to consider
circumstances specific to adolescents that might mitigate the sentence of
convicted juvenile offenders.
Offenders Are Different
As a result, factors such as the minor’s age, education, maturity and other
developmental factors, as well as family history, typically have little, if
any, impact on the sentencing of juvenile offenders who are convicted in
Research suggests, however, that such factors are important considerations
in assessing the blameworthiness of adolescents.
Adolescents who commit crimes do so during a tumultuous stage in their development
marked by profound biological, psychological, emotional and social changes.
Puberty, for example, is accompanied by physical changes, the onset of sexual
maturity, and new drives, impulses, emotions, motivations, changes in arousal,
and behaviors and experiences that challenge an adolescent’s self-regulation
abilities. Changes in arousal and motivation during adolescence tend to outpace
more slowly-developing self-regulation abilities.7
Compared to adults, adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence, and
are less mature when it comes to judging risk, adopting a future orientation
and managing their emotions and actions. Their character is unformed; their
decision-making capacity, undeveloped.
Researchers have found that risk taking and poorly regulated behavior tend
to lessen with maturity, suggesting that as children age they are amenable to
change. Several studies show that antisocial behavior increases almost ten-fold
during adolescence and then rapidly declines as they get older. Only a small
group of adolescents who commit antisocial acts during their childhood continue
to do so into adulthood.8
The standard for judging culpability under criminal law is whether
“reasonable people” would have been unlikely to commit the same crime under
comparable circumstances. In criminal court, the basis of analysis when
applying that standard to a juvenile offender is the likely behavior of an
adult, not the likely behavior of another adolescent.
Another concern is the decision-making processes used by juvenile justice
professionals in most states when determining important issues, such as whether
young offenders are likely to pose a future risk to the community and whether
they will benefit from services designed to help them turn their lives around.
Judging risk and amenability to treatment involves making a variety of
determinations. These include deciding whether an offense represents a
misdemeanor or a felony and, in cases where statutes offer a choice, whether to
charge a young offender as a juvenile or as an adult. Other decisions include
whether to refer a juvenile for more in-depth evaluation, and choosing the
appropriate disposition, such as the type of supervision, treatment and
Research suggests that juvenile justice professionals today continue a
long-standing tradition of relying largely on their intuition to make such
decisions. In general, making decisions about risk and amenability based on a
consistent set of carefully assessed, empirically verified data is rare in
today’s juvenile court system.
This reliance on intuition rather than data has led to the limited use of
several “structured” decision-making tools, including rating scales and
decision trees, that are widely used in other fields, such as medicine and
adult corrections. The reluctance to use such tools stems, in part, from the
limited resources of the U.S. juvenile court system, which struggles under the
heavy demand of having to handle nearly 950,000 cases filed each year.
In Adult Prisons
Tougher reforms that made it easier to try young offenders in criminal
courts has resulted in a surge in the number of juveniles sentenced to adult
prison terms. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of youth under the age of 18
years incarcerated in adult prisons rose from an estimated 2,000 to nearly
9,5009 before falling to 7,200 in 2004.
The nation also witnessed a significant increase in the number of juveniles
sentenced to the harshest prison sentence available to the court. Between 1990
and 2000, the number of juveniles receiving a sentence of life in prison
without the chance of parole increased by 216%, despite a nearly 55% decline in
the number of juveniles convicted of murder.10 The estimated 2,380 U.S.
inmates serving life with parole for crimes committed when they were under the
age of 18 is by far the largest such population in the world.11
Of Mental Disorders
Recent studies reveal a troubling picture of mental illness in the juvenile
justice system. About 50% of juveniles in various types of juvenile justice
settings meet criteria for one of more mental disorders.12 By comparison, the prevalence of mental illness among youth in the general
U.S. population is estimated to be about 15% to 25%.13
Researchers offer several clinical, social, legal, and systemic reasons for
the high prevalence of mental disorders in the juvenile justice system. The
possible reasons include the following:
- Youth who have mental disorders are at greater risk of committing crimes than those
who do not have mental disorders. Studies suggest, for example, that affective
disorders are strongly associated with an increased tendency toward anger,
irritability, and hostility.14 Such mood disorders—mostly
forms of clinical depression—are found in about 10% to 25% of youth in juvenile
- The more punitive juvenile justice reforms of the 1990s that eroded the
discretion authorities have when dealing with juveniles charged with certain
offenses have resulted in less emphasis being placed on the characteristics and
needs of individual adolescents.
- At about the same time tougher juvenile justice reforms were being enacted
across the nation, most states experienced a reduction in public mental health
services for children, particularly inpatient services.
Studies conducted in the states of New York and Washington, for example,
found no difference in juvenile arrest rates after tougher juvenile justice
laws were enacted. In Idaho, researchers reported that juvenile crime rates
actually increased after the state enacted a law that required adult criminal
courts to adjudicate the cases of juveniles who were 14 to 17 years old and
charged with violent crimes.16
Most studies that have examined the impact of tougher juvenile justice
reforms find that measures such as state laws that make it easier to try young
offenders as adults have not resulted in reducing juvenile crime rates as
expected. The research suggests among the reasons crime rates remained largely
unchanged is that young offenders, regardless of their age, seem unresponsive
to the increased risk of being incarcerated.
Transferring more juvenile offenders to criminal court has also failed to
reduce recidivism. In fact, research suggests that tougher reforms may make the
problem worse. For example, several studies report that adolescents transferred
to criminal courts subsequently commit violent crime at higher rates than
adolescents whose cases were tried in juvenile court systems.17
For Policy And Practice
Research shows there is a wide gap between science and juvenile justice
policy and practice and suggests the gap is one of the major reasons why more
punitive approaches to adolescent offenders have failed to meet expected
outcomes of reducing juvenile crime and recidivism.
The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and
Juvenile Justice was established in 1997 to help close that gap by identifying
ways in which scientific knowledge about adolescent development and juvenile
crime could inform policy and practice within the juvenile and criminal justice
systems. The studies published in the 2008 volume of The Future of Children dedicated to juvenile justice
issues grew out of that work.
Those studies, and others, identify several proven options that hold the
potential to promote a justice system that is more effective, less costly and
embraces a developmental perspective that recognizes it is counterproductive to
ignore the differences that separate adolescent offenders from adults
There are signs that policymakers are beginning to consider evidence that
expanded transfer statutes have not reduced juvenile crime and may contribute
to higher rates of recidivism.
Some states are taking action to reverse the trend begun in the 1990s to
lower the age boundary between juvenile and criminal court to adolescents as
young as 16 years old. In 2007, Connecticut passed legislation that moved that
boundary from age 16 years back to age 18. Missouri, Illinois, New Hampshire
and North Carolina have begun debating similar legislation.
Pennsylvania is one of 25 states with laws that provide some mechanism for
criminal courts to consider transferring the case of a juvenile back to
juvenile court. These reverse waivers allow an attorney for a juvenile charged
in criminal court to petition to have the case transferred to a juvenile court.
The alternative to the wholesale transfer of offenders under the age of 18
to criminal court is to rely on case-by-case assessments, which was an approach
adopted by early juvenile courts to determine which young offenders warrant
expulsion from the juvenile court.
Among the practices that can be improved is the way decisions are made
related to the risk adolescent offenders pose to the community and how amenable
they are to treatment. Today, juvenile justice practitioners make those
decisions based more on intuition than available data.
Several instruments for assessing future risk and amenability to treatment
are becoming readily available, including actuarial methods and combined
actuarial and clinical judgment methods. The actuarial approach uses a
consistent and systematic method for gathering and combining data to rate and
group individuals for the purpose of predicting the likelihood of a particular
outcome, such as a juvenile offender being arrested again in the future. The
approach is similar to what actuaries do in setting insurance rates. The
clinical approach, in contrast, attempts to predict an outcome, such as
rearrest, by drawing a coherent picture of how different characteristics of an
individual and his or her situation make that outcome more or less likely. Such
characteristics might include a history of fighting and being returned to the
custody of a dysfunctional parent with a history of violence.
Neither approach is a panacea and implementation is not without challenges.
However, both offer methods for structuring judgment based on data that are
more consistent and more equitable than relying on the intuition of various
Youth with mental disorders in the juvenile justice system make up a very
heterogeneous population whose illnesses placed them at risk for a variety of
reasons. For example, some mental illnesses, particularly those that compromise
the ability to regulate emotions and impulses, elevate the risk of criminal
behavior. Other illnesses have causes that contribute to offending.
Maltreatment is associated with conduct problems and depression, for example.
The most common treatments for youth in acute distress because of mental
disorders include professional clinical care, psychopharmacological
intervention when necessary and structuring an environment to protect the
adolescent and reduce stress during a time of crisis.
During the 1990s, public mental health services for children, particularly
in-patient services, were reduced in most states and many communities began
using the juvenile justice system to fill the gap caused by the shortage of
Research suggests, however, that providing treatment for delinquent youth
with mental disorders should not be the burden of the juvenile justice system
alone. Instead, treatment should be a shared responsibility with the broader
community. Collaboration with community agencies and institutions is supported
by research that suggests the most successful methods of treating delinquent
youths with mental disorders involve community-based interventions that assist
them in the context of their everyday social interactions within the community.
Many youth have multiple needs that do not fit neatly within the boundaries
of individual agencies. When coordination is lacking, they may not receive
services from various agencies. In recent years, approaches to treating delinquent
youth with mental disorders have begun to focus on a community system of care
that integrates services across mental health, child protection, education and
juvenile justice agencies.
In that scenario, the primary role of the juvenile justice system is one of
identifying young offenders with mental disorders, including those who are seen
as a risk to themselves or others at intake and require emergency mental health
services, those who need long-term treatment that can be safely delivered outside
the juvenile justice system, and those with problems severe enough to warrant
secure confinement designed to treat violent, mentally ill offenders.
Preventing juvenile delinquency offers several benefits in addition to
sparing youth from the consequences of committing crimes. Because many adult
criminals begin their careers in crime as juveniles, interventions that prevent
delinquency have the potential to reduce adult crime. In addition, preventing
delinquency can reduce the cost of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and
other expenses associated with offending. Cost-benefit studies suggest
taxpayers can save $7 to $10 in such costs for every $1 invested in effective
The good news is that high-quality studies in recent years have identified
more than a dozen programs that are effective at preventing delinquency and
diverting first-time juvenile offenders from further encounters with the
Research suggests the most effective community-based programs are those
that empha family interactions. For example, Functional Family Therapy, a
well-documented 25-year-old program, has been effective at helping
11-year-old-to-18-year-old youth overcome delinquency, substance abuse, and
problems with violence. Therapists, often through home visits, focus on
improving family functioning by helping family members develop better problem
solving skills, enhance emotional connections and by improving the ability of
parents to provide appropriate structure, guidance and limits for their
children. Another program, Multisystemic Therapy has helped to reduce
recidivism rates and out-of-home placement rates for a range of troubled youth.19 The intervention is designed to help parents deal effectively with their
children’s behavior problems, including poor school performance and their
associations with deviant peers.
Other effective interventions for delinquent youth include alternatives for
placing them in an institutional setting, such as a group home. Studies
suggest, for example, that Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care is effective
in reducing arrest rates among adolescents who participate.20 The program recruits families in the community to take in one youth and provides the foster
parents with case management, ongoing supervision and training that emphas
behavior management methods to create a structured and therapeutic living
For longer than a decade, a growing body of evidence has demonstrated that
these and other available interventions can be used effectively to prevent
delinquency and reduce the likelihood of juvenile offenders committing further
crimes. However, studies suggest that as few as 5% of eligible youth
participate in such programs across the nation. The fact that effective
programs largely go unused is an indication of the lingering gap between what
researchers know about the causes and treatment of juvenile crime and the
policies and practices that remain entrenched in communities across the nation.
Fagan, J. (2008). Juvenile crime and criminal justice: Resolving border
disputes. The Future of Children, 18(2), 81-109. www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-info2825/pubs-
Greenwood, P. (2008). Prevention and intervention programs for juvenile
offenders. The Future of Children, 18(2), 185-206.
Mulvey, E.P, & Iselin, A.R. (2008). Improving professional judgment of
risk and amenability in juvenile justice. The
Future of Children, 18(2), 35-51.
Grisso, T. (2008). Adolescent offenders with mental disorders. The Future of Children, 18(2), 143-159. www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-info2825/pubs-info_show.htm?doc_id=708717
This Special Report is
largely based on the publications cited above. It is not intended to be an
original work but a summary for the convenience of our readers. References
noted in the text follow:
?1 Gardner, B. (2002). Juvenile transfer to the adult
criminal justice system. Pennsylvania
Department of Correction Research In Review, 5 (3), 2-5.
2 Bureau of Justice
Statistics. Arrests for violent crimes by age: 1970-2003. Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Justice. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dtdata.htm#crime
3 Snyder, H., Sickmund,
M., & Poe-Yamagata, E. (2000). Juvenile Transfers to Criminal Court in
the 1990’s: Lessons Learned from Four Studies. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
4 Snyder, H., &
Sickmund, M. (1999). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report.
Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
5 Griffin, P. (2007).
National overviews. In State Juvenile Justice Profiles. Pittsburgh, PA:
National Center for Juvenile Justice. www.ncjj.org/stateprofiles/
6 Bishop, D. (2000).
Juvenile offenders in the adult criminal system. Crime and Justice: A Review
of Research, 27; 81–167.
7 Dahl, R.E. (2004). Adolescent
brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities. Annals of
the New York Academy of Science, 1021,1-22.
8 Moffitt, T. (1993).
Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A
developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100; 674–701.
9 Snyder, H., &
Sickmund,M. (September 1999). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National
Report. Rockville, MD: National Center for Juvenile Justice.
10 Human Rights Watch
& Amnesty International, op. cit.
11 Leighton, M., &
de la Vega, C. (2007). Sentencing our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law
and Practice. San Francisco, CA: The Center for Law and Global Justice,
University of San Francisco School of Law. www.law.usfca.edu/home/
12 Teplin, L. (2002).
Psychiatric disorders in youth in juvenile detention. Archives of General
Psychiatry, 59; 1133–43.
13 Kazdin, A. (2000).
Adolescent development, mental disorders, and decision making of delinquent
youths. In, Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice,
T. Grisso & R. Schwartz, ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
14 Biederman, J. &
Spencer, T. (1999). Depressive disorders in childhood and adolescence: A
clinical perspective. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology ,9; 233–37.
15 Teplin, op. cit.
16 Jensen, E. L., &
Metsger, L. K. (1994). A test of the deterrent effect of legislative waiver on
violent juvenile crime. Crime & Delinquency 40, (1); 96.
17 McGowan A., Hahn, R.,
Liberman, A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M., Johnson, R., Moscicki, E., Price, L.,
Snyder, S., Tuma, F., Lowy, J., Briss, P., Cory, S., & Stone, G. (2007).
Effects on violence of laws and policies facilitating the transfer of juveniles
from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system: A report on
recommendations of the task force on community preventive services. Morbidity
and Mortality Weekly Report, 56,
RR-9; 1–11. Also found at: www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ rr5609a1.htm
18 Aos, S., Miller, M.,
& Drake, E. (2006). Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce
Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates. Olympia,
Wash.: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
19 Henggler, S. W.
Multisystemic therapy. In D. S. Elliot (ed.), Blueprints for Violence
Prevention. Boulder, Colo.: Center for the Study and Prevention of
Violence, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, 1998.
20 Chamberlain, P.
Multidimensional treatment foster care. In D. S. Elliot (ed.), Blueprints
for Violence Prevention. Boulder, Colo.: Center for the Study and
Prevention of Violence, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of