Juvenile Justice

-References by Title

The problem of lengthy sentences for juveniles and recommendations

Adolescent Brain and Age-related Behavioral Manifestations, The

Spear, Linda P. (2000). Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Vol. 24, Issue 4, June 2000, 417-462.

To successfully negotiate the developmental transition between youth and adulthood, adolescents must maneuver this often stressful period while acquiring skills necessary for independence. Certain behavioral features, including age-related increases in social behavior and risk-taking/novelty-seeking, are common among adolescents of diverse mammalian species and may aid in this process. Reduced positive incentive values from stimuli may lead adolescents to pursue new appetitive reinforcers through drug use and other risk-taking behaviors, with their relative insensitivity to drugs supporting comparatively greater per occasion use. Pubertal increases in gonadal hormones are a hallmark of adolescence, although there is little evidence for a simple association of these hormones with behavioral change during adolescence. Prominent developmental transformations are seen in prefrontal cortex and limbic brain regions of adolescents across a variety of species, alterations that include an apparent shift in the balance between mesocortical and mesolimbic dopamine systems. Developmental changes in these stressor-sensitive regions, which are critical for attributing incentive salience to drugs and other stimuli, likely contribute to the unique characteristics of adolescence.

Adolescent Brain Development and the Risk for Alcohol and Other Drug Problems

 Bava, Sunita and Susan F. Tapert. (2010). Neuropsychology Review, Vol. 20, Issue 4, December 2010, 398-413.

Dynamic changes in neurochemistry, fiber architecture, and tissue composition occur in the adolescent brain. The course of these maturational processes is being charted with greater specificity, owing to advances in neuroimaging and indicate grey matter volume reductions and protracted development of white matter in regions known to support complex cognition and behavior. Though fronto-subcortical circuitry development is notable during adolescence, asynchronous maturation of prefrontal and limbic systems may render youth more vulnerable to risky behaviors such as substance use. Indeed, binge-pattern alcohol consumption and comorbid marijuana use are common among adolescents, and are associated with neural consequences. This review summarizes the unique characteristics of adolescent brain development, particularly aspects that predispose individuals to reward seeking and risky choices during this phase of life, and discusses the influence of substance use on neuromaturation. Together, findings in this arena underscore the importance of refined research and programming efforts in adolescent health and interventional needs.

Adolescent Growth and Development

 Oregon Health Authority, Public Health website,

Brain Development

Advances in research and imaging technologies have allowed us to learn more about development of the cognitive centers in the adolescent brain. During adolescence, the brain adopts a “use-it-or-lose-it” pruning system, sloughing unused connections and increasing the speed of others. Areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning (such as strategic thinking, weighing risks and benefits and impulse control) continue to develop and refine connections through adolescence and into the mid-twenties. While teens are able to discern right from wrong, research shows that when faced with an immediate personal decision teens will rely less on intellectual capabilities and more on feelings, but will make more rational decisions when asked about hypothetical scenarios. Emerging research indicates that environmental influences also impact brain development, and adverse childhood experiences or, ACEs, actually disrupt neurodevelopment and can have lasting effects on brain structure and function.

Adolescent Violence Perpetration: Associations with Multiple Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences

 Duke, Naomi N., Sandra L. Pettingell, Barbara J. McMorris and Iris W. Borowsky. (2010). Pediatrics, Vol. 125, Issue 4, April 2010. (alternate link)

OBJECTIVE: Adverse childhood experiences are associated with significant functional impairment and life lost in adolescence and adulthood. This study identified relationships between multiple types of adverse events and distinct categories of adolescent violence perpetration.

METHODS: Data are from 136 549 students in the 6th, 9th, and 12th grades who responded to the 2007 Minnesota Student Survey, an anonymous, self-report survey examining youth health behaviors and perceptions, characteristics of primary socializing domains, and youth engagement. Linear and logistic regression models were used to determine if 6 types of adverse experiences including physical abuse, sexual abuse by family and/or other persons, witnessing abuse, and household dysfunction caused by family alcohol and/or drug use were significantly associated with risk of adolescent violence perpetration after adjustment for demographic covariates. An adverse-events score was entered into regression models to test for a dose-response relationship between the event score and violence outcomes. All analyses were stratified according to gender.

RESULTS: More than 1 in 4 youth (28.9%) reported at least 1 adverse childhood experience. The most commonly reported adverse experience was alcohol abuse by a household family member that caused problems. Each type of adverse childhood experience was significantly associated with adolescent interpersonal violence perpetration (delinquency, bullying, physical fighting, dating violence, weapon-carrying on school property) and self-directed violence (self-mutilatory behavior, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempt). For each additional type of adverse event reported by youth, the risk of violence perpetration increased 35% to 144%.

CONCLUSIONS: Multiple types of adverse childhood experiences should be considered as risk factors for a spectrum of violence-related outcomes during adolescence. Providers and advocates should be aware of the interrelatedness and cumulative impact of adverse-event types. Study findings support broadening the current discourse on types of adverse events when considering pathways from child maltreatment to adolescent perpetration of delinquent and violent outcomes.

 Age and the Explanation of Crime

Hirsch, Travis and Michael Gottfredson (1983). The American Journal of Sociology, 89(3), 552-584.

One of the few facts agreed on in criminology is the age distribution of crime. This fact has been used to criticize social theories of crime causation, to provide the foundation for other theories, to justify recent emphases on career criminals, and to support claims of superiority for longitudinal designs in criminological research. In the present paper, we argue that the age distribution of crime is sufficiently invariant over a broad range of social conditions that these uses of the age distribution are not justified by available evidence.


Cruel and Unusual: US Sentencing Practices in a Global Context

De la Vega, Connie, Amanda Solter, Soo-Ryun Kwon and Dana Marie Isaac (2012). University of San Francisco, School of Law, Center for Law and Global Justice. May 2012.

“Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

In the United States, people who are found in possession of drugs, a non-violent offense, can be sentenced to die behind bars. A person can get a 25 year to life sentence for stealing golf clubs if he has committed two previous offenses, or a life sentence if he has stolen small sums of money three times. A person can get a series of consecutive sentences for each of the component parts of his conduct, such as counting each child pornography file as a separate offense, resulting in a 150 year sentence, much longer than if that person had actually molested a child. A person who sells a handful of drugs can face a mandatory sentence of 15 years. In many states, a child can be prosecuted at any age, tried as an adult, and sentenced to life without parole.

U.S. law allows the same defendant to face prosecution twice, by both the federal and state government. And even if legislators decide to enact laws that lighten sentences, the new law does not automatically apply to prisoners already serving their sentences.

All of these sentencing practices—life without the possibility of parole, “three strikes” laws, consecutive sentences, mandatory minimums, juvenile justice laws, dual sovereignty, and non-retroactive application of ameliorative law—are used frequently in the United States in ways they are not in the rest of the world.

These American practices, focused on goals of deterrence and retribution, neglect the possibility of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, international human rights law places social rehabilitation and reformation as the aims of any penitentiary system.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty that the United States has signed and ratified, says, “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.” By ratifying this document, the United States has agreed that it will uphold this basic human right. Despite this obligation, the United States is an outlier among countries in its sentencing practices.

The U.S. is among the minority of countries (20%) known to researchers as having life without parole (LWOP) sentences. The vast majority of countries that do allow for LWOP sentences have high restrictions on when they can be issued, such as only for murder or for two or more convictions of life sentence-eligible crimes. The number of prisoners serving LWOP sentences is more than 41,000 in the United States. In contrast, there are 59 serving such sentences in Australia, 41 in England, and 37 in the Netherlands. The size of the U.S.’s LWOP population dwarfs other countries’ on a per capita basis as well; it is 51 times Australia’s, 173 times England’s, and 59 times the Netherlands’.

International law and practice indicate that when a change of law will benefit an offender it should apply retroactively. The majority of countries in the world (67%) provide for this type of retroactive application of ameliorative law. In contrast, the U.S. federal government and state legislatures frequently refuse to apply the lighter penalty to those already sentenced. The sentencing practices in the United States persist at the same time that the United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Never before have so many people been locked up for so long and for so little as in the United States.


Early Physical Abuse and Later Violent Delinquency: A Prospective Longitudinal Study

Lansford, Jennifer E., Shari Miller-Johnson, Lisa J. Berlin, Kenneth A. Dodge, John E. Bates, and Gregory S. Pettit. (2007). Child Maltreatment, Vol. 12, No. 3, August 2007, 233-245.

In this prospective longitudinal study of 574 children followed from age 5 to age 21, the authors examine the links between early physical abuse and violent delinquency and other socially relevant outcomes during late adolescence or early adulthood and the extent to which the child’s race and gender moderate these links. Analyses of covariance indicated that individuals who had been physically abused in the first 5 years of life were at greater risk for being arrested as juveniles for violent, nonviolent, and status offenses. Moreover, physically abused youth were less likely to have graduated from high school and more likely to have been fired in the past year, to have been a teen parent, and to have been pregnant or impregnated someone in the past year while not married. These effects were more pronounced for African American than for European American youth and somewhat more pronounced for females than for males.

The Effectiveness of Declining Juvenile Court Jurisdiction of Youthful Offenders

Drake, E. (2013). Doc. No. 13-12-1902. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

In Washington State, the juvenile courts have jurisdiction over youth under the age of 18 who are charged with committing a crime.  Under certain circumstances, however, the juvenile courts are declined jurisdiction and youth are automatically sentenced as adults.

Since 1994, about 1,300 Washington youth have been processed in the adult system under the automatic decline law.  For this report, we examined whether the automatic decline law results in higher or lower offender recidivism for those who were sentenced as adults.

To answer this question, we compared recidivism rates of youth who were automatically declined after the 1994 law with youth who would have been declined had the law existed prior to that time.  We employed numerous tests, all of which demonstrate that recidivism is higher for youth who are automatically declined jurisdiction in the juvenile court.  These findings are similar to other rigorous evaluations conducted nationally by other researchers.


False Hope – How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences Improving Approaches to Serving Young Adults in the Justice System

Mehta, Sarah. (2016). American Civil Rights Union. November 2016.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the most extreme sentences are disproportionate and cruel when applied to young offenders, whose moral culpability must be understood in light of their immaturity and their potential for growth and reform. The trio of cases acknowledging that young people grow and change—Roper v. Simmons (eliminating the death penalty for juveniles) to Graham v. Florida (prohibiting life without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes) to Miller v. Alabama (banning life without parole as a mandatory sentence for juveniles)—“rested not only on common sense—on what ‘any parent knows’—but on science and social science as well.”

Numerous studies conducted over the past two decades by criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists demonstrate that young people who get involved in criminal activity— including the most serious offenses, such as homicide—age out of this conduct by their mid-20s. Because research shows that we cannot know whether a youth’s criminal conduct is transient, the U.S. Supreme Court has held youth must have an opportunity for release so that those who have grown and changed are not serving extreme sentences. Writing in early 2016 for the majority in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made retroactive the court’s prior decision that mandatory life sentences without parole should not apply to juveniles, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy explained:

Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.

That opportunity for release, in many parts of the country, is in the hands of a state parole board. Leaving this responsibility to parole boards without significant reform and oversight will not provide youth who commit crimes a real and fair shot at release but may merely abandon these individuals to the illusory promise of parole.

Improving Approaches to Serving Young Adults in the Justice System

Justice Policy Institute (2016). December 7, 2016.

Over the past year, a number of different advocates, policymakers, practitioners, funders and directly impacted individuals and families have sought to flesh out what a more effective approach to serving 18 to 24-year-olds who are currently under the custody or supervision of the adult justice system might look like.  Groups ranging from the U.S. Justice Department to leading academic institutions and nonprofit advocacy organizations have sought to advance better approaches to serve young adults because they believe it will enhance public safety, improve the lives of justice-involved individuals, and reduce the use of incarceration for the hundreds of thousands of 18 to 24-yearolds in America’s prisons and jails.

To help advance thinking around this policy question, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) convened close to four dozen stakeholders from around the country in two structured focus groups on the East and West Coast to discuss the opportunities and the challenges of developing a better approach to meeting the needs of justice-involved 18 to 24-year-olds.  A diverse spectrum of people—including law enforcement, corrections officials, academics, advocates, representatives of community organizations directly serving young adults, and people who identify as formerly incarcerated young people—had an opportunity to engage in a robust dialogue with each other.

The themes that emerged from the convenings include:

1) The justice reform field should seize the opportunity to improve its approach to young adults.  The impact of adolescent development research, legal arguments, and emerging political opportunities may offer a chance to advance policy changes that can reduce incarceration and promote the kind of positive outcomes for young adults that have lagged in the adult justice arena.  The data show that there are an estimated 400,000 18 to 24-year-olds in prison and jails, young adults are overrepresented at various stages of justice involvement, and young adults of color are disproportionately impacted by the justice system.

2) An improved approach to young adults should be community-based, collaborative, and draw on the strengths of young adults, their families, and their communities.  The best way to reduce 18 to 24-year-olds’ justice system involvement should involve community-based approaches, largely outside the formal justice system.  The approach should be developmentally appropriate, individually tailored, and seek to reduce individuals’ justice system involvement and the collateral consequences that typically flow from contact with the justice system – all philosophical goals of the juvenile justice system. Convening participants also called for increased system and interagency collaboration to leverage public dollars so that young adults can get the schooling, housing, job training, and health care they need.  The approach to young adults should be one that empowers neighborhoods, strengthens communities, and builds on the strengths of young adults. An effective strategy to serve young adults would require larger justice system reforms that focus on resolving behavior through tactics centered around procedural justice, public health, restorative justice, and trauma-informed services.  The approach should seek to change police practices and enforcement, and increase the use of diversion to reduce young adults’ justice system involvement.

3) The field needs specific tools and reforms to law, policy, and practice to develop a more effective approach to young adults.  Participants identified changes to law, policy, and practice order for them to successfully develop a new approach.   Key changes in practice include shifting community supervision practices, integrating families, matching young adults with peer navigators, and sharing data and information on process.  Legal changes would need to target barriers to changing practice. Participants identified the need to develop messaging tools on the best ways to talk about a new approach to young adults, as well as the need for more research on what works with this population, opportunities to share information on these approaches, and strategies to reinvest public resources in community approaches. Participants also expressed that there was no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather that multiple strategies should be attempted, and evaluated, to build a foundation for policy and programmatic approaches that are most effective with the young adult population.

Impulsivity in Juvenile Delinquency: Differences among Early Onset, Late Onset, and Non-Offenders

Carroll, Annemarie, Francene Hemingway, Julie Bower, Adrian Ashman, Stephen Houghton and Kevin Durkin. (2006). Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2006) 35:517.

The present research investigated differences in levels of impulsivity among early-onset, late-onset, and non-offending adolescents. 129 adolescents (114 males, 15 females), of whom 86 were institutionalised (M age=15.52 years) and 43 were regular school students (M age=15.40 years) participated. Each participant completed the Adapted Self-Report Delinquency Scale, Stroop Colour and Word Test, Time Perception task, Accuracy Game, Risk-Taking Game, and the Eysenck Impulsiveness Questionnaire. Results suggest that adolescents who display rapid cognitive tempo, poor mental inhibitory control, and high impulsivity are more likely to be early-onset offenders. Offender and non-offender groups showed significant differences on several measures of impulsivity, which may suggest that late-onset offenders acquire or exacerbate impulse-related problems through social mimicry of early-onset offender peers. Potentially important implications for our understanding of delinquency and the design and provision of prevention programs are highlighted.

Juvenile Disposition Summary Fiscal Year 2015

Caseload Forecast Council. January 2016. Olympia, Washington.

This report details characteristics of the 6,217 FY2015 Washington State juvenile offender dispositions reported to the Caseload Forecast Council.

The picture presented is perhaps at odds with some of the perceptions held by the general public about juvenile offenders.

As the data show, almost three quarters (76%) of the dispositions involved young males. Most offenders sentenced in juvenile court have little or no criminal history. In fact, approximately 81% of dispositions have no prior offenses.

Similarly, most offenders sentenced in court are there for relatively minor crimes. More than two thirds (69%) of the offenders sentenced in FY2015 were sentenced for offenses that were gross misdemeanors or misdemeanors.

Washington is among the small number of states with presumptive sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders. Although courts have access to a variety of sentencing alternatives for offenders with specific treatment needs (sex offenders, chemical dependency, Option B, and mental health issues), the majority of offenders (95%) are sentenced under the presumptive sentencing guidelines.

One of the intents of the Washington juvenile code and its system of presumptive sentencing guidelines is to promote accountability and proportionality in the sentencing of juvenile offenders. The data in this report support the conclusion that these intents are being realized, at least to the extent that the severity of sanctions ordered by the courts tend to increase with the seriousness of the offense and the extent of prior criminal history.

While the sentences of offenders were proportional to seriousness of current offense and criminal history, the population of offenders sentenced was disproportionately male and minority, when compared to the state population. There was significant racial/ethnic disproportionality in the sentenced population. Compared to the state as a whole, those adjudicated in FY2015 were more likely to be African American, Hispanic, or Native American. They were less likely to be Caucasian or Asian/Pacific Islander. African Americans were the most over-represented group in the population, with a coefficient of disproportionality of 4.5.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this report to determine the causes of gender and racial/ethnic disproportionality in the sentenced population. But the data are clear that it persists.

Kids Cannot Routinely Receive De Facto Life Sentences, NJ Supreme Court Rules: Decision Marks a Historic Major Step Forward for Criminal Justice Rights of Juveniles and Movement to End Mass Incarceration in NJ

American Civil Liberties Union. (2017). January 17, 2017.

The New Jersey Supreme Court today ruled (PDF) in two juvenile justice cases that children convicted of crimes cannot be sentenced to de facto life sentences without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes. ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, along with Gibbons P.C. Criminal Defense Chair and Pro Bono Director Larry Lustberg and Gibbons Fellow Avram Frey, represented James Comer. Comer, currently in his 30s, will now have an opportunity to argue for his resentencing. Previously he was only eligible for a parole hearing at age 86, at the end of his natural life span.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who represented Comer:

“We are thrilled that the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized that routinely condemning children to die in prison is unconstitutional, no matter what we call it. Children are different from adults and our criminal justice system needs to fully take those differences into account.

“This decision is a watershed moment for the rights of juveniles nationally and an important step in ending mass incarceration in New Jersey. These two men who were sentenced as teenagers will now be able to go before a judge and argue for their release before they’ve become old men. This decision is the latest development in a nationwide movement recognizing that in the justice system, children are different from adults, and that movement is only gaining more momentum.

“The opinion affirms the fact that a life sentence by another name is still a life sentence. The Court has taken an important first step by ordering resentencing hearings for these clients. But there is more work to be done and we will be calling on the Legislature to take action to ensure that no juvenile in New Jersey is unconstitutionally sentenced.”

The brief (PDF) and opinion (PDF) can be read online.

Longitudinal Development of Human Brain Wiring Continues from Childhood into Adulthood

Lebel, Catherine and Christian Beaulieu. (2011). Journal of Neuroscience, 27 July 2011, 31 (30) 10937-10947. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/30/10937

Childhood and adolescence are periods of significant change, with behavioral, emotional, hormonal, and cognitive processes undergoing maturation. Development does not end there, as young adulthood also provides new challenges and experiences that may continue to impact brain development.


Should the Science of Adolescent Brain Development Inform Legal Policy?

Steinberg, Laurence. (2012). Interview with MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) News on the Daily Circuit regarding his lecture at the University of Minnesota, November 14, 2012.

Key Points

  • Adolescent brains have weak brakes.

  • Adolescents take more risks in groups.

  • The behavior-governing prefrontal cortex is morphing.

  • Adult guidance makes a difference.

  • Ninety percent of kids who break the law during adolescence don’t become adult criminals.

  • Teen offenders are too often treated like adults when they hit the justice system.

The Teen Brain: Still under Construction

The National Institute for Mental Health. (2011). Publication # 11-4929.

One of the ways that scientists have searched for the causes of mental illness is by studying the development of the brain from birth to adulthood. Powerful new technologies have enabled them to track the growth of the brain and to investigate the connections between brain function, development, and behavior.

The research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s.