Juvenile Justice: Incarceration vs. Intervention

The national trend towards getting tough on juvenile crime by altering the juvenile justice system to more closely mirror the adult system was examined in order to determine whether secure confinement of juvenile offenders is as effective as community-based rehabilitative and treatment programs for these youth. Politicians and public perceptions have allowed the juvenile justice system to evolve from one of reform based thinking to one of punishment based thinking, placing more young offenders in secure facilities than ever before. The social repercussions of secure confinement of juveniles, without the use of proper rehabilitative tools, including education and life-building skills, are evident as youth are being ‘set aside’ rather than being encouraged to become productive members of their communities. Not a day goes by where our national media doesn’t report on stories involving heinous and criminal acts committed by juveniles in the United States. Juvenile delinquency is a fact of life – ranging from minor status offenses to unimaginable acts of violence. When dealing with young offenders, there are always difficult decisions to make concerning appropriate punishments that take both public safety and the needs of the juvenile into account. In response to a recognizable increase in youth crime, getting tough on juvenile delinquency and holding young offenders more accountable has been the national trend in the past two decades (Brinks, 2004). Many argue that removing juveniles from the environment in which their crimes were committed is the most successful deterrent of future negative behavior. But what does secure confinement provide these troubled juveniles aside from isolation from the negative influences they may be subjected to on the outside? Should young offenders be incarcerated for their crimes as they would be as adults, or is it possible to ‘rehabilitate’ a juvenile delinquent without the use of detention or incarceration? Of course, juvenile offenders must be held accountable for their offenses – it is an essential element in the natural process of learning and maturation.

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However, the immaturity that is seen in children and adolescents is an indicator that these behaviors will not be well deterred by harsh punitive action, but rather be better served by rehabilitative attempts. The fact that young offenders tend to outgrow their nonconformity is even more of a reason to believe that a castigatory approach to these juveniles will not be successful in reaching deterrent or rehabilitative goals (Young & Gainsborough, 2000). Because of these matters, community programs and intense intervention are more effective than secure confinement when it comes to juvenile delinquency rehabilitation. In order to explore the effectiveness of treatment and intervention versus incarceration of juveniles, it is helpful to look at the original intentions of the juvenile justice system and how the system has since evolved. The question of rehabilitation versus incarceration of juvenile delinquents came to a head in the late 1800s, resulting in the creation of the first juvenile court system in the United States. Prior to this time, institutionalized children were held along with adults, and no efforts were being made to teach them the necessary skills they required to make positive contributions to society. After centuries of treating very young children as property, and those over the age of five or six as simply little adults when it came to criminal misconduct, it was finally recognized, and widely accepted, that the developmental differences between juveniles and adults provided an increased opportunity for the successful rehabilitation of juveniles outside of secure confinement. The early years of the juvenile justice system focused on recovering the lives of the juvenile offenders before they were completely immersed in a life of criminal activity. The states took on the role of ‘parents’ or “parens patriae” (state as guardian) and undertook the parenting responsibility until the juveniles showed improved behaviors, or became adults. Juveniles were no longer tried as adult offenders, and reform houses, rather than prisons, were used to emphasize behavior reform rather than punishment (Brinks, 2004). The juvenile justice system’s focus on reform continued throughout much of the 20th century.

Changes began emerging in the juvenile court system in the mid 1900s. During this time, the main objective of juvenile justice remained focused on reformation rather than criminal punishment, however, principles which were not previously in place, were being established by the Supreme Court, requiring juvenile courts to guarantee specific constitutional protections to young offenders. These protections included the right to be represented by an attorney, the right against self-incrimination and the right to hear the testimony against them (Ramsey & Abrams, 2004, p. 42). Although these rights are in line with constitutional rights afforded adults, many within the juvenile justice system were concerned that the court’s reformative techniques would be lessened if the same constitutional rights were applied to children as to adults. Justice Potter Stewart expressed concern that the court’s decision would “convert a juvenile proceeding into a criminal prosecution” (“History of America’s,” 2008). While constitutional rights must now be afforded to everyone, this was the first of many changes which began to alter the historical intent of the juvenile justice system. Until 1980, other changes in the juvenile justice system seemed to consistently refer back to the main objective of its creation. The Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act of 1968 encouraged states to establish programs geared towards the prevention and rehabilitation of juvenile delinquency at the community level. These programs, once approved, were eligible to receive federal funding. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 built upon the 1968 act and increased nationwide rehabilitative efforts for juvenile offenders. If states wished to receive funding under this act, they were required to remove all juveniles within their jurisdictions from secure confinement facilities and separate them from convicted adults, building on the belief of writer Morrison Swift who commented on jailing young offenders with adults, “young and impressionable offenders were being carried off to Rutland with more hardened men, there to receive an education in lawlessness from their experienced associates” (Swift, 1911).

Despite these steps towards delinquency prevention, or perhaps because of them, public perception towards an increase in juvenile crime in the 1980s caused radically different changes to begin to take place within the juvenile justice system. In the past two decades, the U.S. has gravitated towards a “get tough” approach with juvenile delinquents. In the mid 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. saw a steep rise in violent juvenile crime, a predictable increase in the juvenile population, and many high profile occurrences of youth crime such as public school shootings in Paducah, KY and Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. In 1996, Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney General stated, “no corner of America is safe from increasing levels of criminal violence, including violence committed by and against juveniles” (Zavlek, 2005). American’s feared that they were under assault by a generation of adolescent time-bombs and that “only the abandonment of soft educational and rehabilitative approaches, in favor of strict and unrelenting discipline – a zero tolerance approach” could effectively address the issues (Browne, 2003, p. 10). In reaction to these public fears, legislatures resolved to crack-down on juvenile crime, even though by the mid 1990s, juvenile arrest rates for violent offenses were as low as they had been 20 years earlier. State and local laws imposing harsher punishments on juvenile offenders were enacted, and in turn, more youth were brought into the court system for longer amounts of time (McCord, Widom & Crowell, 2001). This led to an extremely large population of young offenders being held, to this day, in secure confinement facilities. Secure juvenile detention facilities have become the most accepted form of punishment for youthful offenders. Although there was a 66% increase in the juvenile arrest rate during the late 1980s and early 1990s, from 139 arrests per 100,000 youth in 1986 to 231 arrests per 100,000 in 1993, there was an even larger, 74% increase in the number of youth confined in secure facilities during that same period.

Furthermore, in 2001, when juvenile crime rates were comparable to the rates in 1980, the number of youth confined in secure juvenile or adult detention centers was more than double the number in 1980 – 51,000 on any given day in 1980, compared to 104,000 on an average day in 2001. Additionally, despite the dramatic decline in juvenile arrest rates since 1994, more than 44%, there has not been a parallel decline in youth confinement, which has stayed relatively constant since 1995 (Sickmund, 2002). This increased reliance on secure detention accommodations brings with it several concerns regarding the present juvenile justice model of confinement. After looking at the apparent trends in the United States in regards to juvenile crime rates and a propensity towards harsher punishments despite a seeming decrease in juvenile delinquency, there are concerns which arise out of the adult adjudication and incarceration of our youth. Melissa Sickmund claims that one of the largest concerns about secure detention and confinement of juveniles is overcrowding of facilities. She estimates that 39% of juvenile detention facilities are housing more residents than they are meant to accommodate, creating dangerous situations for management, and hindering opportunities for treatment and rehabilitation (Sickmund, 2002). Overcrowding of facilities presents many challenges for administrators, potential rehabilitators, and the confined youth. Opportunities for educational development, such as obtaining a GED, for youth detained for extended periods of time, are extremely limited. Furthermore, mental health needs cannot be appropriately addressed. It is estimated that between 50 – 70% of juveniles who are incarcerated have diagnosable mental health issues and up to a quarter of those may be suicidal, but access to proper treatment is difficult in crowded facilities (Wasserman, Ko & McReynolds, 2004). In addition to the physical, educational and mental health needs of confined youth not being successfully met, unproven effectiveness of detention and confinement is another major concern.

Recidivism rates are extremely high for youth confined in correctional units, such as training schools, where up to 70% of released youth are rearrested within one or two years after their release (Wiebush et al., 2005). Not only are there substantial concerns for the well-being of juveniles in secure facilities, the cost of operating and continuing to construct these facilities is extraordinary. In the year 2000 alone, at least $10-$15 billion was expended in the United States for juvenile justice, most of which went towards paying confinement expenses (Mendel, 2000). Rather than focus on treatment and teaching skills which will help these juveniles become productive members of society, these facilities create a considerable separation from family and community, succeeding only in isolating these youth and making community re-entry difficult (Wiebush et al., 2005). Because of these, and other, issues, positive alternatives to incarceration for young offenders must be made available and used to the fullest extent possible. As is illustrated by the many concerns surrounding the secure confinement of juvenile offenders, its ineffectiveness is apparent, and there are much more advantageous and beneficial alternatives available to these youth. According to Rolf Loeber and David Farrington, secure confinement should be reserved only for those juveniles who are a likely threat to themselves or public safety, and even then, small, community based facilities are preferable. They contend that “The most effective strategy for treating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders and preventing recidivism is a comprehensive, community-based model that integrates prevention programming; a continuum of pretrial and sentencing placement options, services and sanctions; and aftercare programs” (Loeber & Farrington, 1998, p 333).

Community-based curricula are affordable alternatives available to a large number of juvenile offenders, which are intended to decrease crowding, cut costs of maintaining juvenile detention centers, protect offenders from the negative attention of institutionalization, and help sustain positive relationships between the youth and their families and communities while discouraging association with youth who have similar, or more serious criminal histories. One community-based program which has proven to be very effective as an alternative to secure confinement for juveniles is home detention. Home detention requires the offender to remain at home either at all times, at all times when not in school or working, or at night. During home detention, supervisors, normally paraprofessional outreach workers, have much more frequent contact with the youth than traditional probation officers, but the juveniles are allowed to remain with family in their communities (Ball, Huff & Lilly, 1998, p. 158). High levels of success are reported with home detention programs. Studies conducted in California, Ohio and Alabama have reported an 89-97% success rate with their home detention programs, success being measured by recidivism rates, which were generally under 8%, compared to up to 70% for those youth being held in secure detention (Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005).

In addition to keeping children within their communities, community-based treatment and therapy has been pegged as one of the most effective treatments for juvenile delinquency. A goal of community-based treatment is to increase parental authority and supervision as well as focus on any school, family or interpersonal needs or potential problems (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000). There are many successful intensive supervision programs (ISPs) of this type across the country. One such program is the San Francisco based Detention Diversion Advocacy Program (DDAP). Juveniles are referred to DDAP by parents, courts, probation officers or other community agencies. Upon referral to the program, DDAP identifies potential problems, and presents a rehabilitative plan to the court. Offenders live at home, and they and their families are provided with needed services by DDAP case workers. A 2007 study of DDAP found that the recidivism rate of juveniles in this program was less than half that of juveniles who were held in detention facilities for at least 3 days (24 percent versus 60 percent) (Sheldon, 2009). Many reasons were cited for DDAP’s success, including: smaller caseloads, freedom of the caseworkers from administrative limitations of the juvenile justice system, and the program’s emphasis on treatment and educational services along with precise goals to follow the youth’s progress (Sheldon, 2009). Similar programs are also in place for those youth who are unable to return to their homes or families for any reason. Treatment foster care programs are suitable alternative locations in the community for those children who may not be able to live at home.

Treatment foster care programs are unlike traditional group homes or foster homes in that the foster care families are actively recruited and specially trained to care for only one youth at a time in their home. The training provided to the foster parents stresses behavior management methods in order to provide the youth in their care with structure and a corrective living environment. Even after training, daily support is provided by case managers through telephone calls and visits. Biological families are also provided family therapy services. Random evaluations of these programs have shown that recidivism rates are lower among these participants than in those in traditional group homes and secure facilities (Greenwood, 2008). Treatment foster care programs are another example of successful alternatives to juvenile detention. As has been shown in the above examples, the research that exists in regards to juvenile justice suggests that community-based alternatives to detention and secure confinement of juveniles are at least, and most times more, effective in reducing recidivism rates among young offenders, while being significantly lower in cost to operate. Despite noticeable decreases in juvenile crime, many jurisdictions are still faced with the problems of overcrowding in their juvenile detention facilities. In addition to the many negative consequences surrounding overcrowding, such as the facility’s inability to maintain safety and security, most youth will simply not benefit from confinement without the use of evidence based programs (Greenwood, 2008). Effectively dealing with juvenile delinquency involves a myriad of issues ranging from the immaturity of young offenders to the changing trends of juvenile crime. When looking at the many possible outcomes of both incarceration and alternate forms of punishment, we should be able to draw a better conclusion about what types of punishments or treatments are most effective for this group of offenders. As a community, we must focus on opportunities to mentor and grow the youth of today into productive contributors of tomorrow’s society. To achieve this, youthful offenders must be embraced, not forgotten.

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