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Federal Juvenile Justice Policy – Alignment with Science

Teenage boy in the shadows

By Micah Haskell-Hoehl (Senior Policy Associate, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office

To punish or to rehabilitate? That question frames the essence of the debate over criminal and juvenile justice, and it plays out in practice, with new policies always falling somewhere between these two poles. With the 1974 establishment of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the federal government signaled a new commitment to the principle of rehabilitation when it comes to youth. APA supports the JJDPA, and the scientific evidence points to this law as a good use of federal resources.

Developmental science conclusively establishes a meaningful distinction between adolescence and adulthood. This distinction gives strong justification to maintaining a separate justice system for minors and to gearing that system toward rehabilitation. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently released a report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, which espouses a sensible goal for juvenile justice systems: “to support pro-social development of youth who become involved in the system and thereby ensure the safety of communities.” The preponderance of scientific evidence challenges the vestiges of efforts to bring the hammer down on juvenile delinquency.

Many of the hardline policies toward youthful offenders stemmed from the stereotype of the “superpredator”; however, the data failed to establish its actual existence. Instead, a developmental approach to juvenile justice stresses an adolescent’s capability for self-regulation, sensitivity to external influences, and limited ability to make decisions that require consideration of the future. Peer influence plays a much stronger role in behavior during adolescence than in other stages of life. Far, then, from signaling moral deficiency or any innate character trait, risky behaviors in adolescence, including some amount of delinquency and antisocial behavior, reflect certain features that define this stage of development.

Therefore, a psychological perspective advises that, whenever public safety allows, the juvenile justice system steer youth along a healthy developmental trajectory and avoid worsening a young person’s situation. Locking up a young person, when their behavior falls within what we consider normal for an adolescent, risks unnecessarily exposing them to safety hazards and traumatic events. Additionally, research indicates that heavily punitive environments may reinforce antisocial behavior by giving youth a sense of unfairness in proceedings and punishment.

JJDPA encourages states to treat youth in developmentally appropriate ways, including through its critically important core requirements. This means not locking up young people for status offenses (acts, such as truancy or the possession of tobacco, for which adults could not be arrested) and keeping youth and adult offenders separated. The law’s mandate around reducing disproportionate minority contact requires states to assess and address overrepresentation of youth of color at all points in the system. JJDPA funding helps support strategies with a psychological evidence-base that allow youth to stay in their communities and accept responsibility for their actions in ways that foster positive development. Many diversion programs achieve these ends and also cost far less than keeping youth in secure facilities.

In the final analysis, JJDPA helps create a federal justice policy that makes sense for minors and for taxpayers. Emerging developmental science continues to justify the basis for its establishment and maintenance. APA supports the JJDPA and adequate funding for the law to support state efforts to protect both public safety and America’s youth.

APA’s other priorities around juvenile justice issues include: (a) meeting the mental and behavioral health needs of this population without giving well-intentioned actors an incentive to drive youth into the system; (b) stemming the over prescription of psychotropic medication; (c) addressing ethnic and racial disparities; and, (d) providing effective supports for other priority populations, such as girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and youth with disabilities. Please keep an eye out for future blogs that address these key issues for the association, and consider joining APA’s Public Policy Action Network, to engage in advocacy on psychology’s policy priorities.

This is part of the ACT4JJ Campaign’s JJDPA Matters Blog Project, a 16-week series that launched Sept. 10, 2013. You can find the full series at the JJDPA Matters Action Center.

Photo of Micah Haskell-Hoehl

Micah Haskell-Hoehl is a senior policy associate for the American Psychological Association’s Public Interest Directorate. He also works on issues related to juvenile justice and youth mental health, supports his office’s communications needs, and administers APA’s Congressional Fellowship Program.

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