Juvenile Justice System Must Be Overhauled, Says Report Led by UVA Law Professor


University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie was the principal author of "Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach," a new report from the National Research Council that was published today.

November 13, 2012

A new federally commissioned report led by University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie lays out a blueprint to reform the nation's juvenile justice system to better hold youth offenders accountable, prevent recidivism and ensure adolescent offenders are treated fairly.

The report, "Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach," was commissioned by the National Research Council at the request of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The report's authors argue that the juvenile justice system must be overhauled to incorporate an emerging body of knowledge about adolescent development and effective interventions, which should improve outcomes for young offenders and society as a whole.

"What we're trying to come up with is a juvenile-justice system that has accountability without criminalization," said Bonnie, vice chairman of the Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform, which produced the report. "It's important that kids be held accountable. But the same tools of accountability that are used for adults are not a good fit for adolescents because they interfere with successful development rather than promoting it."

Along with Bonnie, director of UVA's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, the committee consists of leading experts in neuroscience, criminology, mental health, economics, developmental psychology and more.

The report outlines a number of guiding principles that it says should be incorporated in juvenile justice reform. Among these are:

  • Use restitution and community service as ways to hold offenders accountable to victims and the community.
  • Confine juveniles sparingly and only when necessary to respond to and prevent serious reoffending.
  • Avoid collateral consequences of being in the juvenile justice system, such as the public release of juvenile justice records that could reduce the offender's opportunities for a successful transition to adult life.
  • Engage the adolescent offender's family as much as possible and draw on neighborhood resources to encourage pro-social development and law-abiding behavior.

Currently, the report says, the juvenile justice system relies too heavily on jailing and punishing, as it removes youths from their families, peer groups and neighborhoods and deprives them of the opportunity to properly learn how to deal with life's difficulties.

The latest behavioral and neuroscience research, the report says, indicates that adolescence is a "period of development between childhood and adulthood characterized by increased experimentation and risk-taking, a tendency to discount long-term consequences, and heightened sensitivity to peers and other social influences."

Adolescents differ from adults and children in three key ways, the report explains. Adolescents lack the maturity to control themselves in emotionally charged contexts. They have a heightened sensitivity to outside influences, such as peer pressure. And they have less ability than adults to make judgments and decisions that involve an understanding of how the outcome might affect their future.

The research suggests that the juvenile justice system would promote healthy psychological development in adolescents if it emphasized the involvement of a parent or parental figure who is concerned with the adolescent's development, included a positive peer group that values good behavior and academic success, and offered activities that contribute to autonomous decision-making and critical thinking.

"You want to optimize the positive peer influences and minimize the negative peer influences," Bonnie said. "So one thing you do not want to do is puts kids in confinement with other kids who teach them to be deviant."

The report also contends that being fair to youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system helps promote respect for authority.

"Adolescents have a heightened sensitivity to perceived injustice, and negative experiences with police officers, lawyers and judges can have lasting effects," Bonnie said. "Holding kids accountable is good for them and good for society, but, by the same token, making sure that they feel that they have been fairly treated is also good for them and good for us."

The report recommends that each state — supported by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention — should launch a sustained and comprehensive process to begin implementing juvenile reforms that are guided by "developmentally informed principles."

"What we're trying to do is consolidate and build on reforms that are already underway in various states and to provide guidance to others," Bonnie said. "Although the leadership and locus of juvenile justice reform have to be nurtured at the state and local levels, we also think the federal government has a crucial supportive role."

On the federal level, Bonnie added, the report urges Congress to strengthen the mandate of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to help the states make evidence-based reforms.

"This is not a partisan issue," he said. "But you need a commitment from the policymakers. Having some cross-branch, bipartisan entity that is created to spearhead, design, monitor and modify the reforms in each state is going to be important."

Bonnie will teach a January term course at UVA Law School on juvenile justice reform, focusing on the study's findings, and will address the purposes and current practices of juvenile justice, racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, the meaning of holding juveniles accountable for wrongdoing, and recent federal and state initiatives to reform the system.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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