6 JULY 2001

Violent crimes committed by juveniles continue to make headlines around the world. Recently it was a 14-year-old boy in Florida who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting his teacher. He is facing a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. And just a few months ago, a 12-year-old boy began serving his life sentence for killing a 6-year-old.

A Better Way to Handle Juvenile Offenders

These shocking cases provoke emotional responses from everyone including policy-makers, parents, students, and school systems. But they also are forcing the nation to ask some difficult questions about how young offenders in this country should be handled -- and what "get-tough" policies really are accomplishing. We recently chaired a National Research Council and Institute of Medicine committee that examined data about juvenile crime and justice. Two decades of research has made it increasingly clear that these tough policies toward juvenile offenders may well be doing more harm than good.

Sensational cases such as those in Florida aside, most juvenile criminals will be released from the justice system at some point, regardless of whether they are incarcerated for their crimes. Therefore, their rehabilitation is particularly critical. Research has found that juveniles processed in adult courts are more likely to relapse into crime than to turn away from it. And studies also demonstrate that bringing misbehaving young people together is likely to encourage violence and other forms of misbehavior.

Attempts to frighten young people into improving their behavior are unlikely to succeed, whether those attempts are made in the schools or by the courts of law. Recent scientific research underscores what most adults who live or work with teenagers already know: Children and adolescents are likely to overestimate their own understanding of a situation, underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, and make judgments based on incomplete or inaccurate information. What's more, children and adolescents tend to focus on short-term consequences.

Some states also have made sentencing within the juvenile justice system more punitive for a broader range of offenses, resulting in the incarceration of more young people in secure juvenile facilities. Yet the consequences of being imprisoned are dramatic and often lifelong. Young people who are placed in detention have higher rates of physical injury, mental health problems, and suicide attempts than juvenile offenders who are treated in community-level programs. In addition, having a prison record severely hampers future employment prospects of juvenile offenders, leaving them with few alternatives to crime once they've served their terms.

The proportion of young black males under the supervision of juvenile or adult criminal justice systems is more than double their proportion in the society at large. The fact that black juveniles are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated also raises questions about fairness. Research has documented the apparent bias throughout the system -- at arrest, during pretrial detention, and at formal sentencing.

But scientific studies also point to some good news. Mounting evidence indicates that juveniles who commit serious offenses can be more effectively treated, without harming public safety, in well-designed, community-based rehabilitation programs. The programs that clearly reduce delinquency tend to tackle a range of problems and involve not only the children, but also parents, teachers, and others in the community.

For example, one promising approach places children with foster parents who are trained to provide a structured level of individualized care for each youngster for several months. In the meantime, they meet with their families for weekly sessions geared toward ensuring that the youths get the help and services they need after returning home.

Community-based programs are by no means a panacea. Some narrowly focused, poorly designed programs can actually increase juvenile crime. Federal and state funds should be used to create treatments and intervention options that avoid gathering aggressive, antisocial young people together. And all publicly supported intervention programs should be closely monitored to ensure that they are working as promised.

It's time for the federal government to provide states with funds and other incentives to develop community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders and move away from institutionalization. Taking these steps certainly won't provide a quick fix to juvenile delinquency. But this new approach could actually help steer youths away from crime for good.

Joan McCord, professor, criminal justice department, Temple University, Philadelphia; and Cathy Spatz Widom, professor, psychiatry department, New Jersey Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark, recently co-chaired a National Research Council and Institute of Medicine committee that wrote the report Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice.



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