Review of Policies, Programs and Trends Prepared for the European Working Group on Juvenile Justice

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Juvenile Justice in the United States:

A Review of Policies, Programs and Trends
Prepared for the European Working Group on Juvenile Justice

Josine Junger-Tas, Convener

Donna Bishop

College of Criminal Justice

Northeastern University

360 Huntington Avenue

421 Churchill Hall

Boston, MA 02115

(617) 373-3362

Scott Decker

Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice

UM-St. Louis

8001 Natural Bridge Road

St. Louis, MO 63121-4499

(314) 516-5038

I. Main Policies for Prevention Treatment and Procedural/Individual Rights

Context for Understanding Policy

No policy or policies can be understood outside of the context in which they are made and must operate. Thus we provide a brief set of background or contextual issues that provide an important framework for understanding the Juvenile Justice system in the United States and its policies. 1

Historical Context

Twenty years ago, Carter (1984: 36) noted that in order to comprehend juvenile justice in the United States, it was essential to understand three points. First, the size of the system(s) is/are enormous. All fifty states, the District of Columbia – and to some extent the federal government – have separate systems of juvenile justice. Second, the systems are extremely complex internally and externally. This is especially true of the interaction of the system with other public and private forms of control, including schools, mental health, public health, and agencies of government. Third, Carter underscores the dynamic character of the system(s), noting the significance of paying close attention to trends in those systems.

Social and Demographic Context

A key to understanding the main policies of prevention, treatment and procedural/individual rights is to understand some of the context of the juvenile population, juvenile crime, and the juvenile justice system.2 There are approximately 70 million people under the age of eighteen in the United States, a figure projected to increase to over 80 million by the year 2030. This projected increase represents an increase of twenty-one percent from 1995 to 2030. The population of 15-17 year olds, the primary population “served’ by the juvenile court, is increasing at a similarly dramatic pace. By 2007 it is projected that there will be roughly 13 million juveniles in this age range, a number similar to that recorded at its peak in the 1970’s during the midst of the post World War II baby boom. This increase is projected to be dramatically higher among minorities, particularly Asian/Pacific Islanders (65%) and Hispanics (60%). Complicating this picture is the fact that a large fraction of juveniles live in poverty in the United States (roughly twenty percent), and that the child poverty rate is increasing faster than that for adults or the elderly. There is good news in that the poverty rates of Black and Hispanic youth are at their lowest period in the past decade. Family structure has changed for juveniles living in the US, with many fewer juveniles living in a home with two parents. In 1997, three-quarters of White children lived with two parents, sixty-four percent of Hispanic children lived with both parents, but only thirty-five percent of African-American children lived with both parents. While the birth rate among teenaged girls in the United States has declined steadily through the 1990s, it remains higher than in the 1980s. In addition, the teenage birth rate of 57 per 1,000 teenaged girls is significantly higher than in other industrialized democracies such as Canada (32), England (26), Australia (22), the Netherlands (6), Norway (15), and Japan (4). High School completion rates have increased for all race/ethnic groups, and roughly 88% of 18-24 year olds have completed high school.


These data describe some of the challenges facing juvenile justice in the United States, both in the contemporary setting as well as for future generations. Further context for the juvenile justice system can be found in data regarding juvenile victimization. The juvenile homicide peak in the US occurred in the early 1990’s but has declined significantly since then. Black teenaged males are disproportionately represented in homicide victimization statistics. Juvenile homicides (15-17 years old) are more likely to involve a firearm than any other age group. Juvenile suicide rates are just as important as juvenile homicide victimization rates, and suicide rates for juveniles are roughly half of their homicide victimization rates. It is important to note in this comparative context, that both homicide and suicide victimization rates in the US are consistently higher than those for other industrialized countries. Juveniles experience other forms of violent victimization in addition to homicide. Data drawn from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) indicate that juveniles are at especially high risk for being victims of violent crime. Indeed, 12-17 year olds represent roughly twenty percent of all victims of serious criminal violence. Juveniles are particularly likely to be victims of assault, twice as likely adults. Males, racial and ethnic minorities, and residents of cities are most likely to be victims of these crimes. Juvenile victimization occurs in a patterned manner with regard to time of day, with the highest risk period being just after the end of the school day. Consistent with a growing body of research about juvenile victimization (Lauritsen, Sampson and Laub, 1991), juveniles who engage in delinquent offending put themselves at increased risk for victimization. This is particularly true for drug use among juveniles in the U.S. That is, juveniles who engage in drug use are at highly elevated risk for victimization, particularly of violent crimes.

Unlike the issue of victimization, there are multiple data sources available to assess the extent of offending by juveniles. These include primarily self-report studies and official crime statistics, and to a lesser extent, the NCVS. Official crime statistics (the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation based on reports from local police jurisdictions) documented just fewer than 1500 homicides involving juveniles as offenders in 1997, a decline from the peak of 2300 in 1994. Juveniles involved in homicide are spatially concentrated. Indeed, eight of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties accounted for twenty-five percent of all juvenile homicide offenders. This illustrates the highly concentrated and urban nature of homicides perpetrated by juveniles. Juveniles are over-represented in a number of offense types.

A large proportion of juveniles have engaged in delinquent behaviors, according to self-report data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Some of the more prevalent juvenile offenses include: using alcohol (39%), using marijuana (21%), engaging in property destruction (28%), carrying a gun (19%), belonging to a gang (5%), and stealing something valued at more than $500 (8%). In addition, eight percent of juveniles report ever being arrested in their lifetime. Males report more involvement in delinquent activities, and race/ethnic minorities report greater involvement in offenses such as assault and gang membership.

Serious juvenile violence declined by one-third between 1993 and 1997, a greater rate of decline than for adults. Juvenile assaults were more likely to occur in the after-school hours. This pattern is similar to that for victimization reported above, and suggests policy implications discussed below.

The majority of juveniles who enter the juvenile justice system make one appearance never to return again. For boys, this is the pattern for fifty-four percent of all referrals; for girls it is the case for seventy-three of all referrals. This has important implications for prevention and intervention strategies and we discuss this at some length later in this paper. Estimates of the cost of a lifetime of juvenile offending are of course based on several assumptions the validity of which cannot be fully assessed. However, the best estimates indicate that a juvenile who drops out of high school and engages in a lifetime of offending and drug use generates a cost to society between $1.7 and $2.3 million.

Another part of the picture of juvenile offending is revealed by arrest statistics collected by local law enforcement and compiled by the F.B.I. as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting program. For calendar year 1997, just over 2.8 million juveniles were arrested. More than four-fifths of these were for four offense types, larceny-theft, simple assault, drug abuse violations and disorderly conduct. This suggests that a substantial number of juveniles are arrested each year, the majority for minor offense categories. Five percent of arrests for that year were for crimes of violence (murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault). These arrests accounted for nearly twenty percent of all juvenile arrests that the police made in that year. There were more arrests for crimes of violence, weapons, drugs and curfew violations than other offense types. Overall, arrests of juveniles increased dramatically from 1988 to 1994, but since then, there has been a steady decline in juvenile arrests. Interestingly, there is little correspondence across the fifty states in the juvenile property and violent crime arrest rates. In other words, states with high rates of violence committed by juveniles are not likely to have high rates of property crime committed by juveniles. In addition, property crime arrests of juveniles have been relatively flat since the early 1980s, with notable declines in burglary. Juvenile females have seen increased arrest rates compared to juvenile males, a pattern that is particularly strong for assault, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.

The juvenile courts process a large number of cases annually, but still only a fraction of all juvenile arrests3. Eighty-six percent of delinquency arrests and forty-eight percent of status offense are referred to the court by the police. Not surprisingly, within each category of offense type (delinquency and status) the seriousness of the offense has a strong bearing on the decision by law enforcement to bring the case to the attention of the juvenile court. In 1986, a total of 1.76 million cases were handled by the juvenile courts of the United States, representing about 1.2 million juveniles. This is more than four times as many cases as juvenile courts handled in 1960. There was an increase in juvenile court cases compared to 1987 (49%), a figure greater than the growth in the juvenile population during that time (35%). These increases were not confined to certain age categories or offense types, as increases were observed across most age groups and offense types. The increase in court cases was most pronounced for drug and person offense cases. As noted above in comparing arrests patterns for juvenile males and females, increases for female referrals to the juvenile court have been sharper than for males from 1986 to 1997. The rate of referral for Black juveniles to the juvenile court is more than twice that experienced by White youths. And there is some evidence that the over-representation of Black youth in the juvenile court is increasing rather than declining.

The second step in the juvenile justice process after referral to the court is the detention decision. In 1996, nationally eighteen percent of youth referred to the juvenile court were held in detention. Juveniles held on charges of drug or personal crimes were the most likely to receive detention, with public order and property crimes less likely to receive detention. In 1996, more than 640,000 youth were held in detention after their referral to the court. Males were much more likely to be detained than females, and Blacks were more likely to be detained than Whites or members of any other race. Just as the use of detention has increased over time, informal adjustment of cases has declined over time, and formal hearings now account for the process in more than half of all delinquency cases. These two trends reflect the increasing formality of juvenile justice system responses. When cases are adjudicated in the juvenile court, the majority result in either placement in a residential facility or probation (82%).

One interesting way to assess what the juvenile court does with cases is to examine the outcome for every 1,000 delinquency cases (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999). For every 1,000 delinquency cases referred to the juvenile court, 441 are not petitioned. Of this group, 197 are dismissed, 140 receive probation, 100 receive another sanction and 4 are placed in a residential facility. Of the 550 cases that are petitioned, 6 are waived to adult court, 230 are non-adjudicated and 323 are adjudicated. Of the non-adjudicated cases, the majority (138) are dismissed, forty-six receive probation, forty-one receive other sanctions and five are placed. Of the adjudicated cases, the majority (175) receive probation, ninety-one are placed, forty-three receive other sanctions and the remainder are released.

In 1997, just over 106,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement facilities. The majority of these juveniles were held on a delinquency offense (77%), though seven percent were held on status offenses and sixteen percent were non-offenders4. Roughly three-quarters of these juveniles were held in public facilities, private facilities accounted for the balance. The “detention rate” (the custody rate per 100,000 juveniles) varied widely across the states, illustrating the difficulty in characterizing a US juvenile justice system, rather than a collection of fifty-one separate systems. Hawaii held 13 youths per 100,000 in custody, while the District of Columbia (332/100,000) and Georgia (172/100,000) represented the highest figures. Some states are much more likely to use private facilities than others for the placement of adjudicated juveniles. Massachusetts (64%) and Iowa (60%) use private facilities more often than other states, while Mississippi (0%) and Nevada (3%) use private facilities rarely if at all. As noted above for the arrest and court appearance stages of the juvenile justice system, Black youth are over-represented in custody. Nationally Blacks are five times more likely than Whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics to be held in custody. Females account for a small proportion of juveniles in custody (21% of 13 year olds, the peak age group for females in custody), but present their own special challenges for management of residential facilities. In 1996, forty percent of juveniles were being held in facilities that were operating above their capacity level. Imposition of the death penalty for juveniles has been rare, but there are currently 164 offenders on death row whose capital offense was committed while a juvenile.

We offer a diagram below (Figure 1) taken from Snyder and Sickmund (1997, 98) that identifies the major decision making steps in the juvenile justice system. This diagram should be contrasted to that offered by Carter, 1984, 18) for the increased role of waiver and other more formal means of disposing of cases. The differences illustrate changes that have taken place in American juvenile justice in the past two decades.

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