The current legal system incarcerates too many minors, according to a National Research Council report led by University Law Prof. Richard J. Bonnie. Scientific research into adolescent development suggests confinement is not advisable for minors, as juveniles are less likely to reoffend if sentenced with community service and other measures of restitution instead of jail time.
The legal system was founded on assumptions that do not apply to minors, according to the report. Instead, researchers are advocating for the juvenile legal system to be informed by recent scientific findings.
“Our committee was charged with reviewing the growing body of behavioral and neuroscientific knowledge about adolescent development and drawing out [its] implications for the design and operation of the juvenile justice system,” Bonnie said in an email.
Juvenile incarceration tends to increase the rate of second offenses rather than reduce it, according to the report. Most adolescents mature out of certain qualities that tend to lead to crime, including a high sensitivity to peer influence and high tendency to make decisions without regard to the future.
The findings led the researchers to conclude that community service and rehabilitation programs are much more effective in preventing future offenses than incarceration.
“By intervening carefully, the courts can help young people emerge from this high-risk period with their future prospects intact,” Bonnie said. “The evidence also shows that harsh interventions tend to increase the risk of reoffending rather than reducing it.”
The juvenile justice system currently operates by confining, containing and controlling, which takes juveniles away from society and their families, arenas where modern development research has shown youth learn to deal with life’s challenges. The findings suggest a justice system that removes juveniles from these areas at an important developmental stage can negatively impact them in the future.
“For many youth, the lack of a positive social context during this important developmental period is further compounded by collateral consequences of justice system involvement, such as the public release of juvenile records that follow them throughout their lives and limit future educational and employment opportunities,” according to the report.
The report also notes how minorities are disproportionately represented in the juvenile legal system, especially in the severity of their punishments, and that further research must be conducted to better address this problem.
The report’s suggestions do not aim to take accountability away from the juvenile offenders, Bonnie said.
“Youths should be held accountable for wrongdoing and society properly expects youths to take formal responsibility for their actions, including restitution for injury they have caused and service to the community,” Bonnie said. “But condemnation and confinement, the hallmark features of criminal punishment for adults, are neither suitable [n]or necessary features of accountability for adolescents.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an agency within the United States Department of Justice, commissioned the two-year study to take advantage of emerging scientific research and improve the quality of the legal system.