New adolescent research could impact juvenile justice

By John Lam

City leaders are urged to adopt juvenile justice reform practices that are based on recent adolescent development research.

In a memo addressed to city leaders, the Institute for Youth Education and Families (IYEF) outlined the following three key aspects for city officials to focus on.

A. Youth crime stems more from adolescence than “criminality”

The memo noted, “Recent adolescent brain development research confirms that misbehavior, even crime… [are] due to particular qualities of this unique developmental phase.”

The teen brain seeks immediate gratification, excitement, and peer approval and lacks impulse control and the ability to weigh long-term consequences. In fact, delinquent acts represent one manifestation among many adolescent risk taking behaviors. Others include driver deaths, unintentional drownings, unintended pregnancies and self-inflicted injuries.

According to IYEF, the type of crime a young person commits does not accurately predict future ongoing criminal activity. The memo states, “we cannot predict that a youth who carries a gun is more or less likely than a youth who shoplifts to become a career criminal.”

B. More severe consequences do not prove more effective

According to IYEF, the threat of immediate or light consequences plays the greatest role in deterring youth crime. By contrast, serious punishment such as arrest and prosecution may actually increase the short  and long-term cost to public systems and risks to public safety.

Regarding cost to the public system, IYEF points to two studies that found youth who experience intensive involvement in the juvenile justice system suffered worse life outcomes, including incidences of physical and sexual abuse and related trauma in juvenile detention facilities and an increase in truancy and dropping out.

Regarding increased risks to public safety, arrested and prosecuted youth showed the following negative outcomes:

They are more likely to reoffend within six months;

They are more likely to be rearrested within two years; and

They reduce offending more slowly over a subsequent period of two years.

C. Provide well-targeted services to achieve positive outcomes

IYEF advocates the following to improve community practices:

Use a more expansive risk-and-needs assessment tool such as Youth Level of Service Inventory to match the right youth with the right services.

Form a continuum of community-based services, including mentorships, community services and extracurricular activities that promote independent decision making and critical thinking.

Use restorative practices that have a proven positive outcome, such as community conferencing, to engage young people in decision making.

IYEF relied on four studies to reach its conclusion: the University of California Irvine study “Crossroads”; the University of Pittsburg study “Pathways to Desistance”; The National Research Council study “Reforming Juvenile Justice: a Developmental Approach”; and the Municipal Leadership in Juvenile Justice Reform.


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