Juvenile justice reform: Many hurdles remain but still worth pursuing

Back • March 16, 2022 • Family Economic Security

by Derrick M. Gordon, Ph.D. and Shannon Schrader

Recent discourse on juvenile justice reform has focused on the increases in juvenile offending and the need to hold young offenders accountable for the crimes they have committed. At the same time, judicial rulings (e.g., “Graham v. Florida,” 2010) have affirmed the critical importance of balancing demands for accountability with documented developmental considerations.

Sometimes, inaccurately, this leaves authorities charged with community safety and offender accountability in a bind – keeping the community safe at the expense of what we know supports healthy development.

Connecticut has been a leader

Effectively intervening in the field of juvenile justice reform is of utmost importance in the service of both our young people and the larger community. In Connecticut, great strides have been made in juvenile justice reform over the past few decades. Connecticut has consistently been on the front line, proposing and implementing innovative juvenile justice initiatives and practices that locate juvenile offending in the developmental contexts of the offender. However, as can be expected with such a complex issue, many hurdles remain, such as the proportion of youth of color admitted to detention over time.

Science has been our guide

To address these ongoing struggles, Connecticut has leaned on science to help direct interventions focused on reform; established an expectation that juvenile offenders can be reformed; and acknowledged that offenders at this age have individual, familial, community, and larger contextual factors that either facilitate or inhibit their offending behaviors. Additionally, Connecticut has acknowledged these facts while also recognizing the need that any intervention ought to keep our communities and our youth safe. Such reliance on science allows us to accurately differentiate between strategies that have been shown to work versus those that do not). It also provides an opportunity to develop comprehensive, integrative, and idiosyncratic strategies, as no two cases are exactly the same.

Approaches that work together are better than approaches that stand alone

Until recently, the science that drives criminal justice reform has been siloed. Research into juvenile justice has used either a public health approach that views youth offending as detrimental to the health of individuals, communities, and society; a social-ecological approach that emphasizes human behavior is shaped by multiple levels of influence, such as biology and environment; or a restorative justice approach that adopts a community-based lens on accountability, public safety, and community healing.

In Connecticut, however, we recognize that each of these approaches add strength to any juvenile justice prevention and intervention effort. We also observe that in communities with lower rates of juvenile justice intervention needs, law enforcement and other front-line individuals instinctively are able to marry these three approachesappreciating the developmental limitations of the young person and community impacted.

A lack of uniform standards and practices

Acknowledging the aforementioned experience, Connecticut proposed a novel model of juvenile justice reform that integrates these three competing approaches (public health, social-ecological, and restorative justice models). In discussions with community partners, we observed that there were no universally agreed upon standards and practices around juvenile offending. This lack of uniformity resulted in youth of color (and by proxy, the communities they represent) being differentially impacted, oftentimes experiencing harsher and more restrictive sanctions that their white suburban counterparts for the same infractions. Thus, the Integrated Model of Juvenile Justice (IMJJ) was born.

The IMJJ asks social and criminal justice interveners to identify and consider a more equitable approach that spans and integrates public health, social ecological, and restorative justice needs of the victim, young people, and their community – something currently practiced in more affluent communities. This approach expands the tools available and promotes consistency across community, irrespective of the community or individual resources available. It also promotes a more equitable response to youth and communities who are impacted by the juvenile justice system, while pointing to an issue often missed in conversations about “accountability” for juvenile offending — costs.

A $273,750 per person, per year price tag

The costs associated with juvenile offending cut across the victim, offender, and community impacted. Nested within these constellations of impacts are the public health, social-ecological, and restorative justice experiences. Each experience carries its own fiscal burden.

Finding methods to reconceptualize and strengthen our approach to the juvenile justice system to design more effective strategies is of utmost importance. One of the most important reasons rests in the cost of incarcerating a young person in Connecticut.

National estimates show that the costs of incarcerating a young person can range from around $100,000 to almost $900,000 per year. According to a Justice Policy Institute Report, the cost to incarcerate a young person in Connecticut costs a staggering $750 per day, totaling $273,750 per year. $273,750 for one year, for one young person? This raises questions about the good use of taxpayers’ funds.

Is the cost really worth it?

The staggering cost associated with confinement also raises important questions about our society’s willingness to confront what are important investments when thinking about our young people. Given the documented disproportionality observed in juvenile justice, there are questions about appropriately investing in: the individuals who are victims and perpetrators, with an eye towards ensuring appropriate restorative justice interventions.

Said differently, at a cost of over one quarter of a million dollars per year for one young person, would our financial resources be better spent on proven strategies, rather than confinement and incarceration? In this line of reasoning, interventive measures could be employed that are preventative, promote positive youth development, and support well-being for youth as well as safety for the larger Connecticut community members.

Let’s keep following the science

We argue that proven approaches like those that focus on targeting the communities disproportionately impacted by juvenile justice involvement helps to build a safety net for the individuals directly impacted – offender and victim, and their extended networks (e.g., families, community). Keeping all of Connecticut’s residents safe is our challenge, our work, and our promise. Let us work collectively to meet that charge rather than wasting our limited resources on strategies that may make us feel good about “being tough” but only, over time, increase the burden that we all carry.

Derrick M. Gordon, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry (Psychology Section) and Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine and the Director of Research for Policy & Program on Male Development at The Consultation Center.  He is also on the Board of Connecticut Voices for Children and ‘r Kids.

Shannon Schrader is a Clinical Psychology Predoctoral Fellow at Yale University School of Medicine’s Clinical and Community Internship Program. She is jointly located at the Substance Use Treatment Unit and The Consultation Center, both a part of Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven.