By Feather O’Connor Houstoun
In the decade since I left health and human services administration and its issues behind, promising shifts in juvenile justice policy and practice have gained momentum. Perhaps the most significant development is the resolution adopted this summer by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges laying out new policy on juvenile probation and adolescent development. This is a game-changer.
In its resolution, the council outlines changes to modernize probation approaches to reflect knowledge of adolescent development and behavioral decision-making. At the heart of this is spreading awareness of the science that has illuminated how different adolescent brains are from those of adults and how counterproductive public policy and practice have been — especially if the goal is to help young people get back on track toward successful lives.
Now, instead of sanctions, incentives. Instead of standardized “conditions of parole,” individualized case plans. Instead of binary “compliant or noncompliant” probation standards that trigger arbitrary returns to detention, differential responses that guide youth toward as normal a path to adulthood as possible, using out-of-home placement as a last resort.
The search for effective treatment and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders first gained national attention in the mid-1990s, when the shift away from punitive detention was exemplified by what are called “balanced and restorative justice” policies, which seek to bring all parties — offender, victim and community — into the response to juvenile crime. While giving victims and the community opportunities for involvement and input, these policies proactively sought to redirect offenders by guiding them to recognize and repair the harm they had caused and to increase their skills and abilities.