Why you should care

Because juvenile justice reform isn’t enough. 

Juvenile justice reform is sweeping the United States. No more solitary confinement for 12-year-olds! No more mandatory life sentences without parole! The really radical reformers have even begun calling for the closing of detention centers.

But all these efforts resemble a person who pours money and energy into fixing a car that never worked in the first place, rather than trading it in for a well-oiled foreign sedan. “We patch a piece here and then patch a piece there,” says Marsha Levick, co-founder and deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and the system “loses any coherence.” Which is why we shouldn’t invest any longer in “reforming” the juvenile justice system. Instead, we should junk it, and along with it, the idea that children can commit crimes. In other words: When little Johnny gets in trouble, send him to a psychologist or social worker, not to court.

This is not a revolutionary idea, or even a new one. The first American juvenile courts, created at the turn of the last century, aimed to treat bad behavior, not punish it. Judges prescribed “treatment plans” intended to foster healthy development because they didn’t believe children could commit crimes. The very idea was nonsense: In 1910, Judge Benjamin Lindsey, who helped establish the juvenile court system, wrote that “our laws against crime are as inapplicable to children as they would be to idiots.” Today, the “treatment” ethos still colors juvenile justice systems in European countries. There, a case manager finds out what the kids need that they aren’t getting. Are there issues at home? Poverty? Drug addiction? Do they have access to health care, education, playtime?

Spare the rod and spoil the child, you might say, and there are indeed cases where physical detainment is the only appropriate response: if someone is dangerously unstable, for instance, or a psychopath. Some victims’ rights groups argue that heinous crimes deserve punishment, no matter the perp’s age. “It’s fine to get rehabilitated, but it’s still about responsibility and accountability,” says Dan Levy, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children. Others, though, argue that most kids aren’t “committing crimes,” but acting out. Generally, punishing them doesn’t work. The No. 1 predictor of juvenile incarceration: getting suspended or expelled from school. The No. 1 predictor of adult incarceration: juvenile incarceration.

On the other hand, many psychologists, schools and even some juvenile justice jurisdictions have for years been following a model that opts for problem-solving over punishment — with measurable success. For example, one Maine school, a poster child for a “problem-solving” approach to misbehavior, found that its disciplinary rates dropped by 80 percent, according to the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which is expanding the program. And the Scotland approach — held up as a model throughout Europe — does not put misbehaving juveniles before a judge. Instead, it employs a panel to identify and tackle the juveniles’ unmet needs, with the young people themselves involved in devising and implementing any plan.

“We all pretty much see that the current system doesn’t work,” says Kjell Luoma, who’s been a juvenile correctional officer in California for the past 14 years. That’s the case even for old hands who “are resistant to anything they see as coddling.” In that case, what do we have to lose?

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