NRC Report Advocates Using Research to Shape Juvenile Justice Reform

Carrie Williamson, Ph.D., JRSA Research Associate

JRSA Forum. December 2012. Volume 30, Number 4.

A report released by the National Research Council argues for significant changes to the juvenile justice system based on the growing body of research on adolescent development. The report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, was commissioned by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) as part of its efforts to ensure it is supporting effective practice. It was authored by a diverse committee of academics and practitioners who are experts in juvenile justice and adolescent development.

The report focuses on what is known about the transition to adulthood and the most appropriate ways to intervene with youth. Research evidence demonstrates that some of the key limitations of adolescents include lower levels of self-control, reduced understanding of the consequences of their actions, and increased likelihood of being influenced by their peers, but most youth naturally age out of these characteristics. Evidence shows that youth are positively influenced by the positive presence of a parent or guardian, a prosocial peer group, and activities that promote positive decisionmaking. Confinement can interfere with these relationships and activities, and reduce their positive impact on youth development.

As such, the report recommends community service, restitution, and other nonconfinement sanctions as more appropriate responses to juvenile delinquency. Reducing the negative effects of justice-system involvement for youth as they transition to adulthood reduces the likelihood that they will commit future crimes or be further involved with the justice system.

Negative interactions with the justice system can lead to disrespect for the law and continued offending, and research shows that juveniles are more likely to accept responsibility for their actions if they perceive responses to be fair. For this to occur, youth should be aware of and participate in the adjudication process, and efforts should be made by juvenile justice practitioners to minimize biases based on race and poverty. The report advocates for increased efforts to reduce racial disparities, noting that research continually shows disproportionate minority representation in child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The report's recommendations also include strengthening research on adolescent development, as well as increasing OJJDP's support for training, technical assistance, and data systems and analysis.