The juvenile justice system is putting too many minors behind bars, according to a new federally commissioned report led by a University of Virginia law professor.
Research on adolescent development indicates that juvenile offenders are less likely to commit new crimes if sentenced to restitution or community service instead of jail time, professor Richard J. Bonnie said.
“There are alternatives to confinement. We think confinement is used too often,” he said. The report, which took more than two years to complete, says minors should only be confined if they are at high risk of harming others.
“We do have compelling evidence that properly designed treatment programs … do significantly reduce reoffending, sometimes by as much as 40 percent,” Bonnie said. Such programs, he added, are more cost-effective than incarceration.
Juvenile justice reform must begin with state and local governments, Bonnie said.
Bonnie, vice chairman of the National Research Council’s Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform, worked with 14 lawyers, sociologists and psychologists from across the country to author the report, released earlier this month.
Carl Bell, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Juvenile Research, explained that people do not complete neurological development until age 26. For that reason, juvenile offenders should be treated differently in the justice system than adults, he said.
“If there is solid research on something, we should make sure we use it as much as possible,” said Jeffrey Butts, another committee member. Butts serves as the director of the Research & Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Because their brain systems are still developing, adolescents often neglect to consider the future when making decisions. Scientists also blame brain development for teenagers’ weakness to peer pressure.
“Children are all gasoline. No brakes, no steering wheel,” Bell said. “What they need in their lives are people, family, community and schools … which will become the brakes and steering wheel,” he added.
Removing children and adolescents from their support systems can be counterproductive to rehabilitation, Bell explained. He said it is better to make juvenile offenders take part in community service.
“If you are a good citizen and you help somebody, you feel better about yourself because you did something constructive,” Bell explained.
It is important for juveniles to feel they are treated fairly, even after they commit a crime, Bonnie explained.
“If you actually go out of your way to treat young people fairly, they have a more positive response to the legal system,” he said.
Developing policy related to juvenile justice is “political and chaotic,” Butts said. Committee members will speak at public conferences to share their findings with policymakers, he said.