Op-Ed: Juvenile Justice, Vulnerable Children, and Other Things That Matter

Facebook Twitter More...

By Robin Jenkins, PhD

I was recently reading the Des Moines Register to review what the experts said toward reforming and/or improving juvenile justice. Each expert, accomplished in their own fields and organizations, indicated strong support for various ways to improve juvenile justice either within their state, or the field in general if one thinks from a national perspective.

What struck me about the article was the variety of– and strategically different approaches–offered for improving “the system”. Clearly in the article experts noted significant support for interventions at the earliest possible point, an overarching focus on restorative approaches, matching the right program to the right level of risk, as well as ensuring that those truly requiring court supervision get that while ensuring high quality and accountability. Most everyone in the field would concur that these are state-of-the-art directions to go in.

So articles like the one in the Des Moines Register often take me to a thought I’ve been mulling over for some time — what if we really did have consensus developed practice guides/guidelines, or basic sets of evidence-supported recommendations that are developmentally appropriate for youth to guide decision-making at each key decision point in the system? What if there were very clear, science based guidelines for law enforcement officers, district attorneys, public defenders, court staff, and allied agencies working with young people so that discretion was less influential and evidence/science/best practices more directly related to the issues brought before them? And, what if these guidelines were developed and approved across systems and agencies, not just within professional groups or bodies? I’m not talking about things like bench books or general guidebooks for practitioners — more like, practice guides similar to what the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry uses for clinical conditions. The National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers (their practice standards), the American Psychological Association (see their youth violence prevention materials) and several other organizations use similar tools or guides in their roles. Is this even a good idea?

Work has been done in several of these areas — for example the National Juvenile Defender Center worked hard with colleagues to develop the National Juvenile Defense Standards (see MacArthur’s Models for Change). And the not-so-long-ago released National Research Council’s Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach does a great job of pointing the field as a whole down the proper road to integrate developmental science into the various elements of thought required for at-risk and offending youths across the spectrum.  Excellent efforts toward these ends are found in Janet K. Wiig and John A. Tuell’s Guidebook for Juvenile Justice & Child Welfare System Coordination and Integration: A Framework for Improved Outcomes (Child Welfare League of America, Inc., 2004, rev. 2008.

But I fear that one of the criticisms of juvenile justice has to do with the lack of clear consensus on “what to do with ________(fill in the name of the youth)”. Depending on with whom you speak, in what location, for what problem or crime, and for how the problem behavior impacts which victim(s), you can get widely different recommendations on what may be the best course of action to pursue (including the centuries old dosage arguments about treatment versus punishment). While this can be construed as a strength of the juvenile justice system – that is, individualized sanctions and plans of care based on local jurisdictions and resources; variably recommended or offered “solutions” can also be thought about as a sense of disagreement as to what works, what might be the best practice approach(es) to pursue — and worst of all, where is the data supporting each recommendation made on behalf of youth and their families or caretakers?

I believe we need to work much more aggressively to advocate for and obtain federal leadership, state support as well as philanthropic investments to move toward consensus-driven, evidence supported practice guidelines for key decision points across the juvenile justice system. It is a herculean task. But without better data linked to specific recommendations and services for youths (including cost benefit, cost effectiveness data) at the points in time where critical judicial and/or case management decisions are needed, it is sometimes hard from public policy and advocacy standpoints to specify why certain things should happen to reform or improve our system. We should try to agree with each other (across law enforcement, courts, judicial and other branches of supervision and services) as to the proper courses of action to pursue in order to convince policy makers and appropriators — and these agreements should be based more on science, field-driven data and best practice guidelines and less on opinion, historical practices or preferences.

This op-ed has been reprinted from Robin Jenkins' blog.

Robin Jenkins, PhD has a 30+ year history of involvement with vulnerable children. He is deeply committed to helping find solutions for children, families, communities and the systems designed to afford them opportunities. His background includes work in behavioral health, juvenile justice, substance abuse, nonprofit development and management, state government work as well as instructing college students through various psychology-related courses.