IV. Future Directions
As has been noted, the juvenile court has become more criminalized in an environment where public safety concerns have mixed with the rehabilitation goal. The result has been that the assertion of due process rights to protect juveniles from unfair treatment, along with public demands to get tough on violent juvenile offenders, has increased outcome severity. The future is likely to see such mixed practices continue. For example, mandatory transfer decisions will continue to be revised to include specific offenses or a combination of offense and prior record. Also, prosecutors are also likely to gain influence in transfer decisions. This is especially likely if juvenile crime rates increase again after a period of decline. On the other hand, adjustments such as reverse waiver allow juveniles the possibility of reprieve from mandatory guidelines. Like the adult criminal justice system, juvenile court judges will continue to lose discretion in their decision making for serious offenses.
The most prominent reform that will affect the juvenile justice system is restorative justice: the philosophy that informs practice, like the idea of “best interests” from the early days of the juvenile court. Restorative justice asserts that the offender has harmed individuals and the local community, not the state. The offender should therefore make restitution to the victims and community through mediation and community service. Although community service and monetary restitution have been common aspects in juvenile court sanctions, they must be connected to the offense in order to address the needs of restorative justice. Treatment for juvenile offenders (education, vocational skills, or anger management) is also an important component of restorative justice because it facilitates the juvenile’s ability to complete the restorative process.
Restorative justice has received favorable assessment by agencies that have adopted it; however, researchers have not sufficiently supported it empirically. Although restorative justice attempts to reorient the juvenile justice system away from punishment, it does not expressly seek to reduce recidivism; thus, its future adoption across the United States is unlikely to be embraced beyond restorative justice advocates unless it also demonstrates practical utility, such as reducing crime. In addition, the promise of reforming the juvenile court in favor of benevolent treatment over punishment is no guarantee of success, as history has shown.
One final future trend that appears to be helpful is the implementation of empirically established practices and policies. Often called the “what works” paradigm, researchers and funding agencies collaborate to find out why some programs work while others, even promising ones, fail to be implemented successfully. For example, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E.), although wildly popular in many communities, has failed to reduce drug abuse among teens. On the other hand, a similar education program aimed at keeping kids out of gangs— Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT)—has had successful evaluations.
The history of the control and rehabilitation of juveniles in the United States has proven to be good intentions that have failed. Although the fundamental idea of treating juveniles rather than punishing them is appealing, only close attention to policy reforms will prevent future unanticipated consequences.
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