Formal Juvenile Justice Processing Makes Matters Worse

When I began my graduate studies in the early 1970s I quickly became well versed in a relatively new approach to the study of crime and delinquency.  This approach came to be known as the “labeling” perspective.  One of the earliest supporters of this view was sociologist Edwin Schur who wrote two definitive books on the subject: Labeling Deviant Behavior and Radical Nonintervention. As Schur noted in the first book, this approach focuses on three key areas: 1) how and why certain behaviors are defined as criminal or delinquent, (2) the response to crime or delinquency on the part of authorities (e.g., the official processing of cases from arrest through sentencing, plus formal processing by the juvenile court), and (3) the effects of such definitions and official reactions on the person or persons so labeled.  At this time there was not a whole lot of empirical support for this approach and in particular not much research existed testing the proposition that formal processing of juveniles in the juvenile justice system made matters worse.

However, over the ensuing decades research started to gradually trickle in supporting the hypothesis that formal processing through the juvenile justice either made matters worse or at best had little impact on delinquency.  Now we have quite a body of research that supports this hypothesis.  The most recent example comes from a very comprehensive study by a group called The Campbell Collaboration, a group based in Norway but with a strong presence in the U.S.  In fact one of the co-editors is Mark Lipsey from Vanderbilt University.  Lipsey is most noted for his many studies using what is known as “meta analysis” which is a very sophisticated quantified approach in summarizing research results drawn from different studies. It allows greater precision in determining the effectiveness of particular intervention techniques. The most recent publication from this organization uses this technique to review research going back to the 1970s that addresses one question: does formal processing within the juvenile justice system increase crime, decrease crime or makes little or no difference one way or another?  The publication is titled: “Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency.”

After searching the literature for research that uses the experimental design (where there is a control group and treatment group) the researchers found a total of 29 controlled experiments (those that used a control and treatment group).  In brief, their meta analysis of these studies (mostly published in peer-reviewed journals or books) they concluded as follows: “Based on the evidence presented in this report, juvenile system processing appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency. This was true across all measures of prevalence, incidence, severity, and self-report.”  They also concluded that given the costs of formal processing “and the lack of evidence of any public safety benefit, jurisdictions should review their policies regarding the handling of juveniles.”  They went on to note that diversion programs showed the greatest success at reducing delinquency, especially those programs that offered services.

The implications of these results are clear and demand that policy makers begin to more seriously consider alternatives to formal processing.  Among other programs across the country, CJCJ’s own program Detention Diversion Advocacy Project is one among several “model programs” according to OJJDP.  Support for such programs should be high on the priority list of government officials.