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121 MARCH 2009
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Restricting or Educating?

David Roush

Nearly ten years ago the National Juvenile Detention Association in the USA unanimously adopted the following four-point definition of juvenile detention:

This definition was developed from the seven essential characteristics of juvenile detention identified by the American Correctional Association, defined as follows:

Confusion of function
Juvenile detention is a paradox that is difficult to define. The confusion of function ranks even above the perennial problems of crowding, the lack of funding, and the lack of personnel. The National Conference (1947) recommended the following distinct solutions to the confusion of function:

The intent of these solutions is to open detention to those youth who truly need secure, temporary custody. Viewed as important for the future of detention over four decades ago, these solutions are equally relevant today.

What are the functions of detention?
Two functions (goals) make up the conflicting parts of the juvenile detention paradox.

First, detention restrains and inhibits a youth’s freedom or liberty through placement in a locked institution, in a physically restricting environment or in some other level of custody with supervision. This function is called preventive detention.

Second, detention is also one of the services associated with the juvenile court. When detention services include helpful programs for the diagnosis, remediation, or restoration of the juvenile offender. This function is called therapeutic detention.

Preventive detention
The earliest studies of juvenile detention identified security and a physically restricting environment as universal characteristics of juvenile detention. These characteristics are essential to preventive detention. The preventive function is easier to understand because it is consistent with the meaning of the word “detention.” According to the dictionary, detention means “a keeping in custody or confinement.” Custody means “a guarding or keeping safe; care; and protection.” The implication of preventive detention is that detention is a form of custody that prevents certain things from happening to ensure protection or safekeeping. What are the goals of preventive detention? There are different opinions regarding how many goals are included in the preventive detention function. However three general goals emerge:

There is little doubt that protection of the child and protection of the community (public safety) are universal goals expressed m the detention literature. However is preventive detention the exclusive function of juvenile detention?

Therapeutic detention
The word “therapeutic” is sometimes misleading. Although preventive detention stops certain behaviours or actions, the nature of therapeutic detention is to initiate certain events. Therefore, therapeutic detention could also be called “educative detention,” “helpful detention,” or “proactive detention.” This function examines what detention can do to help the juvenile, achieving the preventive goals of protecting the offender, family and community and preventing the occurrence of further offences.

Although the ultimate goal of therapeutic detention is not the complete rehabilitation of the juvenile offender, detention should be seen as the place where the process begins. The term “therapeutic” is associated with the program and services provided by the juvenile court. Ideally juvenile detention is only one component of the range of services available to the juvenile court.

The basis for the therapeutic detention rationale is diagnosis and observation. For the court to make an informed decision regarding the future of the juvenile, information is needed regarding the juvenile, the home environment and peers. Short-term detention has been used as an opportunity to accomplish this task. The diagnostic and observation themes are so common that many juvenile codes include these concepts as a rationale for detention, and they have created conflict in the definition of detention goals.

Balanced approach
The goals of preventive detention and therapeutic detention are not mutually exclusive. However the lack of consensus about juvenile justice philosophy increases the tension between these two functions. Until NJDA established a national definition of detention the confusion of function was a major obstacle to the definition of detention. The problem was the inability of practitioners to integrate these two detention goals and balance them in daily practice. Now would also be a good time to return to the NJDA definition at the beginning of this article to see how it combines the preventive and therapeutic themes.

This feature: Roush, D.W. (1996). Desktop guide to good juvenile detention practice. National Juvenile Detention Association and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.