Thursday, December 6, 2012

The state of Juvenile Justice

Glenn R. McGloughlin /
This fall I attended a meeting of the newly reorganized Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C..  (You can learn more about this advisory committee at  While there I listened to researchers, front-line staff in the state juvenile justice systems, and federal staff from the Office Of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention speak about their concerns and hopes for youth who become involved with the justice system.  There were some harsh realities presented and clearly some work to be done.  However, I came away from the meeting filled with a great deal of hope for the future.

One thing for those of you who may not be familiar with the details of the Juvenile Justice system in the United States....I believe that it is extremely important to understand WHY we have a separate system for juveniles who break the law.  Young humans are operating with brains that do not function in the same way as those of adults (this is actually true for most youngsters under 24 years of age, not just the age when we consider them adults in terms of the justice system).  We should not expect them to behave as adults, especially in situations where there are risk versus reward decisions to be made.  Nor should we expect them to respond to incarceration or other elements of a justice system in the same way as adults.  We have a lot of evidence to the contrary.  We know that they are different and need a different system.

At this meeting the intent of those in leadership was clear.  Penetration into the Juvenile Justice System should be 1) rare, 2) fair, and 3) beneficial.  At present we are not meeting these goals. In the US we hold five times more young people in secure facilities than the nation with the next highest rate.  Clearly, penetration into the system is not rare (read more about this in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's report No Place For Kids).  The good news is that those who work in Juvenile Justice are very aware of this fact and are working hard to move towards diversion and prevention.

Based on the number of minority and impoverished youth being held, the US system is not universally fair, either.  (The same is true of our adult system.) Even in Maine, the number of children of color being held far exceeds that which we would expect based on our demographics.  Once again, there is a glimmer of good news...the reduction of disproportionate minority contact within the justice system is a top priority for the Department of Justice and many states' Departments of Corrections.  For example, Maine's Juvenile Justice Advisory Group is working very hard with its partners in Corrections and Law Enforcement to bring equity and fair treatment to all youth who come in contact with the system. Some great progress is being seen here and in other jurisdictions.

The idea that young people should leave a secure placement better off than when they entered is one of those ideas that may not be on the top of your mind when thinking about a justice system.  For many citizens, incarceration is about punishment...not about fostering positive personal growth.  For me, it is here that it is most important for us to remember that we are talking about children here.  Many who are held may be teens, but they are still children who need guidance and time to mature to become healthy adults who can positively contribute to society.  I believe that we must do all that we can to ensure that children who must be detained by the justice system have been provided an opportunity to overcome the negative experiences and situations that they have endured AND that we don't separate them completely from whatever healthy support systems they may have.  The good news here is that we are learning more about what works, and increasingly bringing that knowledge to bear on the system.

It is clear that we have far to go...but with a commitment to these three objectives we can make a profound difference. I am proud to be working on the prevention of youth delinquency and violence in my community and to serve on both the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group and the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.  If you have issues or facts related to Juvenile Justice that you would like to talk to me about, please get in touch!  (