5 Reasons to Act Now on Juvenile Justice Reform

Teenage boy in handcuffs

By Kerry Bolger, PhD (Public Interest Government Relations Office)

Did you know that the U.S. incarcerates more of its kids per capita than any other developed nation—and that we spend about $5 billion a year of taxpayers’ money to keep them locked up?

Is that because a lot more kids in America are committing violent acts and getting arrested for them?  No; they’re not.  It’s largely because our juvenile justice system incarcerates many young people for low-level offenses and technical violations, and shortchanges investment in evidence-based alternatives that can save money and make communities safer.

This can change.

Here are five reasons to act now on youth justice reform:

1.      Overreliance on incarceration is unnecessary.

Many young people in juvenile correctional facilities are incarcerated for low-level and nonviolent offenses.  In 2010, for example, of the 59,000 youths under age 18 confined in juvenile facilities in the U.S., only 1 in 4 was detained or committed for a serious violent offense.  About 12,700 kids (1 in 5) were confined only for status offenses (such as truancy, curfew violation, or running away) or technical violations (such as failing to report to a parole officer).

A number of states have shifted their youth justice policies away from overreliance on incarceration, with no accompanying increase in juvenile crime.

2.      Incarceration doesn’t reduce future crime. 

Juvenile incarceration doesn’t reduce re-offending, but rather increases it, especially among youth with less-serious delinquency histories.

That’s no surprise, considering that youth in juvenile correctional facilities are exposed to more serious offenders and to widespread physical and sexual violence in confinement.

3.      Evidence-based alternatives work.

A large body of research shows that alternatives to incarceration, including diversion, community-based supervision, and evidence-based interventions, reduce re-offending, even among youths who have committed serious offenses.

Youth who receive post-incarceration community-based supervision and services are also less likely to re-offend, and more likely to go to school and work.

For a minority of young offenders deemed a threat to public safety, the success of the Missouri model suggests that smaller facilities, closer to youth’s homes and focused intensely on safety, youth development, and family involvement, reduce recidivism and increase educational progress compared to juvenile correctional facilities.

4.      It’s time for government to stop wasting our money and young people’s futures.

It costs American taxpayers about $88,000 to keep one youth incarcerated for one year.  In contrast, an evidence-based intervention such as Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, or Multisystemic Therapy costs less than a tenth as much and yields a positive return on investment—while actually helping kids and reducing crime.

Incarceration often disrupts a young person’s education, and many youths don’t return to school after being incarcerated. Individuals incarcerated as juveniles are at higher risk (even after controlling for other factors) for being unemployed even years later in adulthood.  That doesn’t help anyone.

5.      The American people get it.

According to a recent national survey, 3 out of 4 Americans agree that the juvenile justice system should focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration and should provide youth with more opportunities to better themselves.

How can you act now to reform youth justice?

You may also be interested in:

5 Essential Reasons to Keep Kids Out of Adult Jails

APA Advocates for Investment in Evidence-Based Programs for Youth

“Detained” – APA Monitor article on teens in the juvenile justice system


  1. Trying Juveniles as Adults
    Michael Jedrzejek
    University of the Rockies

    Each state has provisions in the criminal code that determines when a juvenile must be treated as an adult. In researching the criminal code and finding the statute or statutes that make this determination in Pennsylvania, typically the process is called a bindover proceeding or hearing depending on what state also in researching psychologically what supports and rejects this law for juvenile offenders.

    In Pennsylvania Juvenile Act limits access to the public court records as well as juvenile arrests records although they still have consequences as a juvenile from adjudications, the Pennsylvania juvenile court, which includes from age ten and twenty one that has committed a crime as before their eighteenth birthday and if found as a juvenile responsible of the criminal act a court will adjudicate the delinquent. In most cases states have statute that will automatically transfer involving a juvenile to adult court under certain circumstances. In Pennsylvania a juvenile 15 years old or older can be tried as an adult if the offense is a serious felony with a deadly weapon in the crime. Pa. rules governing certification or some states call it bindover proceedings or hearing.
    In some situations a juvenile will be tried as an adult such as if a juvenile who is transferred as an adult and is fourteen or older and the court finds there is true facts and probable cause (prima facie) the juvenile did commit the act, and the act was considered a felony if it were done by an adult and there is there is no reason to believe that the juvenile is not mentally ill. Rule 409 can determine also if the court finds the juvenile in need of rehabilitation, supervision and treatment (pacode.com).
    In the transfer of the juvenile a hearing will be held with counsel. The juvenile will only be directly transferred to an adult system if accused of murder or is 15 years old and had priors with the use of a deadly weapon or adjudicated for any crimes prior this charge with aggravated assault , rape, manslaughter, or any of such will then be transferred to adult court for criminal proceedings. Rule 231 under B 1: Certification, the District Attorney and the police officer shall submit to the attorney for the Commonwealth and decide if the juvenile will be sent to an adult process (pacode.com). Pennsylvania’s murder exclusion does not have any minimum age. The transfer on other provisions set at 14 or 15 years old. In most states 14 is the common set age statutes set in transfer’s provisions.
    It is indicated that the juvenile offenders in adult courts seem to be sentenced heavier than a young adult. It seems that adult punishments of the transferred juveniles are more severe that of the actual adult offenders. Being a juvenile in the adult court is an extreme penalty in its own and is believed that juveniles are sentenced more intense than the adult. More research on the impact on juvenile transfer to adult system proceedings need be looked into. The problems from the cause and effect from the crime may also be from family, schools or psychological problems then just throwing them in jail and may be an actual remedy for the juvenile offender to get the appropriate help in some cases. Mental health treatments appear to be more pronounced in the youth transferred to an adult criminal facility or prison (Sara E. K. 1999).
    If a child commits murder in most states they will be tried as an adult if it is first degree murder. In Pennsylvania anyone that is charged with criminal homicide of any age will be in an adult court. So was the case of Zachary Proper of Venango County Pa. with the charge of two counts of criminal homicide of the murder of his grandparents (old.post-gazette.com.).
    At age 11 Jordan Brown shot his father’s pregnant fiancée in the back of her head when she was sleeping in Lawrence county Pa. although after a long court battle he was found guilty and sent to a secure juvenile facility. Pennsylvania is leading the nation with number on inmates that are now serving life sentences for being juveniles when committing crimes. A bill would be given that judges shall only give juveniles under the age of 15 of a murder conviction 25 to life.
    About 30 juveniles a year are being charged in a murder as seen in Canada as adults as in a case of a 14 year old killing his dad and mom and brother on mother’s day. Some adolescence who kills suffer from deep disturbance or a traumatic childhood experience that needs to be sought after with some offenders. They should get the help they need when sent to a correctional facility but no one really forces the issue and just lets them rot in jail and it is needed to be identified to why this is happening in our society (Hustak A. 19930). Are they silent victims themselves and prisoners with unmet needs? In dealing with children and young at that despite the horrific crime it may just be time to help especially to send them back to a juvenile court.
    Is it fair that sentencing of juveniles with life and no parole is a quick deterrent tool especially considering how high the crime rates are in the United States? U.S. has ranked third in murder done by youth offenders in a 2002 world health study but has dropped since this. The life without parole for juveniles is pretty much a sentence only given in the United States like of theirs such as Europe maximum for youth offenders is usually around 25 years (http://www.usfca.edu).
    It seems that typically legislatures do not care giving teens any hope and we get vengeance of kids that experienced crime is not justice it is vengeance. In comparison to the world and the Human Rights Watch from 2004 investigations with sentencing policies as far as kids given life without parole they found only 12 child offenders in the entire world serving this where as there are 2,225 in the United States and the 12 were in just three other countries, South Africa has four, one in Tanzania and the rest in Israel. They all report to the (CRC) of the U.N. International Convention on the Rights of the Child. We need better intervention for these juveniles and more help to get them a second chance in some cases, not ignoring the problem and leaving them in prisons.
    In conclusion see this map of juveniles serving life without parole in each state at this site below: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/whenkidsgetlife/etc/map.html?utm_campaign=videoplayer&utm_medium=popupplayer&utm_source=relatedlink
    It is very much that family members become victims themselves after their sons or daughter has a run in with a juvenile offender either way if on the prosecution end or the actual victim end it all needs entirely reconsidered and a better intervention for all.

    HUSTAK, A. (1993, Jul 18). About 30 kids a year charged under youth act with murder. The Gazette. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/432450532?accountid=39364
    Megan, C. K., & Brian, D. J. (2004). The juvenile penalty: A comparison of juvenile and young adult sentencing outcomes in criminal court*. Criminology, 42(2), 485-517. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/220708237?accountid=39364
    Sara, E. K. (1999). Ove rturning McKeiver v. pennsylvania: The unconstitutionality of using prior convictions to enhance adult sentences under the sentencing guidelines. Georgetown Law Journal, 87(6), 2149-2180. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/231505653?accountid=39364



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