Juvenile Justice: what works and what doesn’t

Juvenile Justice: what works and what doesn’t
23 May 2011

“There is general consensus among research-oriented psychologists and criminologists about ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work’ in reducing the criminal behavior of juvenile offenders,” claim researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, US.

What doesn’t work
Let’s start with what doesn’t work. Following an arrest, youth can go through one of three tracks: officially processed through the court system, released without referral or services, or diverted from the system to various community-based services. Juvenile court processing tends to increase criminal behavior, especially when compared with diversion to community services.

Next, all US states have mechanisms for handling juveniles in adult criminal courts, yet this is associated with higher recidivism among juveniles convicted of person and property offences when contrasted with counterparts adjudicated in juvenile court.

The evidence of the effects of probation and parole on juvenile offending is mixed. One meta-analysis found no effect, whereas another found a slight favorable effect. It might not be detrimental, then, but is widespread use of probation and parole justified given the lack of strong evidence?

As for interventions designed to shock juvenile out their delinquency through threats, bullying and intimidation by inmates – the most famous example of which is Scared Straight – they actually increase the criminal behavior of participants.

Lastly, residential facilities – boot camps, group homes, detention centers, wilderness camps – have more than failed to rehabilitate youth and improve community safety: they tend to increase criminal activity.

Researchers Scott Henggeler and Sonja Schoenwald say, “In sum, a number of juvenile justice interventions that are intended to reduce the criminal behavior of delinquents have had the unintended consequence of increasing youth antisocial behavior.

“We regard such findings as a logical and expected outcome of the interplay between well-established risk factors for offending and the nature of interventions provided.”

What does work
So what does work? Effective programs have three facets. First, effective programs address key risk factors, established through decades of correlational, longitudinal and experimental research. They focus on building more effective family functioning, disengaging youth from deviant peer networks, and enhancing school performance. Ineffective programs and policies largely ignore the impact of families and networks, or make them worse – for example, by putting antisocial youth together for extended periods of time.

Second, effective programs are rehabilitative and use behavior intervention techniques within the youth’s natural environment. They are community-based, whereas ineffective interventions operate elsewhere – residential facilities and prisons, for instance.

Third, effective programs are well-specified and include intensive support for intervention fidelity. This includes quality assurance manuals, training, and monitoring of therapist and program performance – and correction where necessary.

Three programs consistently identified as being effective in multiple real-world settings, and demonstrating these characteristics, are Functional Family Therapy (FFT), Multi-systemic Therapy (MST) and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC).

The broken link to policy
So, this is good news! We know what works and what doesn’t. Policy and practice surely follow suit, with FFT, MST and MTFC being implemented widely?

Not so. Henggeler and Schoenwald estimate that about 15,000 youth in the juvenile justice system are treated with an evidence-based treatment each year. Since 160,000 youth are placed annually, and an equal number are at high risk of placement, this means that fewer than 5% of eligible high-risk juvenile offenders in the US are treated with an evidence-based treatment.

There might be a consensus on these matters in the scientific world, but unfortunately “this knowledge has relatively little penetration into the general public, media, politicians, and policymakers.” Tomorrow’s Prevention Action story looks at why this is – and what can be done about it.

Tomorrow, Prevention Action will broadcast a follow-up to this story. Stay tuned.

Henggeler, Scott W. and Sonja K. Schoenwald. 2011. “Evidence-based interventions for juvenile offenders and juvenile justice policies that support them.” SRCD Social Policy Report 25(1): 3-20.


Functional Family Therapy

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a family-based intervention designed to help dysfunctional children aged 11 to 18. The program helps children and their families reduce defensive and aggressive communication patterns and promote supportive interaction in the family. It also addresses supervision and effective discipline. Functional Family Therapy is a Blueprints Model Program.

Scared Straight

Scared Straight takes children thought to be at risk of delinquency to prisons to observe life there first-hand and to meet adult inmates. This is meant to deter young people from following a similar path. However, a systematic review by the Campbell and Cochrane Collaborations showed that not only does it fail to deter crime, but actually leads to more offending.

The concept was based on a Academy Award-winning documentary released in 1978 which took young people around Rahway State Prison, New Jersey.

Multisystemic Therapy

Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an intensive home-based and family-driven intervention for 12 to 17-year-olds displaying serious antisocial or criminal behavior. Therapists work intensively with the young person and family members to deliver a range of evidence-based services according to each family’s needs. The ultimate goal is to reduce anti-social behavior and improve parenting practices. MST is generally targeted at chronically violent or substance-abusing juvenile offenders who, without support, are highly likely to need out-of-home placement. Referrals typically come from youth justice agencies.
MST is a Blueprints Model Program.

Search form

Advertise here

Subscribe to our newsletter

Click here to subscribe to the Prevention Action Newsletter.

Editor's Picks

There is more to the international transfer of prevention programs than just hitting the “copy and paste” buttons. The introduction of the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program to Ireland offers insights into how to succeed.

Few people working with children will have heard the term “prevention scientist,” let alone know what one is or does. Yet this relatively new breed of researcher is behind the growing list of evidence-based programs being promoted in western developed countries. A new publication puts them under the microscope.

Crime and antisocial behavior prevention efforts have flourished over the last 10 years in the US. This progress can and should be used to help communities improve the life chances of their young people, a recent update urges.

Given the well-known barriers to implementing evidence-based programs, is it better to identify their discrete elements and trust practitioners to combine them in tailored packages depending on the needs of the child and family in question?

The final official review on child protection offers a shakeup of services.