Juvenile Justice in the U.S.: Facts for Policymakers

Gottesman, David M.; Schwarz, Susan Wile

Recent research shows that the human brain continues to develop throughout adolescence, with the pre-frontal cortex ““ the section of the brain responsible for executive function and complex reasoning ““ not fully developing until the mid-twenties. Because adolescents' brains are not fully matured, their decision-making and thought processes differ from those of adults. For example, it is developmentally normative for adolescents to take greater risks and show greater susceptibility to peer influences than adults. These otherwise normal differences can contribute to behaviors that lead to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Beyond developmental influences, additional risk factors associated with youth ending up in the juvenile justice system are cognitive deficits, low school involvement, living in poverty, or being runaway or homeless. Just over two million youth under the age of 18 were arrested in 2008. Of these two million, about 95 percent had not been accused of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or aggravated assault. In 2010, of the nearly 100,000 youth under the age of 18 who were serving time in a juvenile residential placement facility, 26 percent had been convicted of property crimes only, such as burglary, arson, or theft. For nonviolent youth involved in the juvenile justice system, incarceration in traditional residential placement facilities often does more harm than good. These large residential facilities are ineffective at providing the services and rehabilitation these youth need, and this lack of capacity contributes to high recidivism rates (rearrest within one year of release). Reliance on these residential placement facilities is an inefficient use of taxpayer money, not only with regard to the funds needed to keep youth in these facilities, but also the future lower wages and lost productivity that often follows for these youth. Reform efforts must place a greater focus on improving access to mental health services for all youth, better serving the needs of youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system, and creating effective alternatives to traditional residential placement facilities. Proper treatment and rehabilitative services can help many youth currently in the juvenile system become healthy and productive members of society.

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Academic Units
National Center for Children in Poverty
National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University
Improving the Odds for Adolescents Publications
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July 20, 2011