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Executive Directions, March 2001

Children's Voice Magazine

Over the past two decades, we have witnessed firsthand an evolution of the American juvenile justice system. As many child- and youth-serving professionals remember, the nation experienced a rapid increase in violent juvenile crime during the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1988 and 1994, for example, juvenile arrests for violent crimes increased more than 50%. Troubling statistics such as these resulted in a massive strain on the juvenile justice system, from intake to detention and correctional services, and a public outcry for our leaders to take action to ensure public safety.

Although balanced between prevention and intervention efforts in some instances, the response by the federal, state, and local governments was predominantly one that created new levels of accountability and punishment for juvenile offenders. This included legislation and appropriations that lengthened juvenile sentences, increased the number of juveniles who could be incarcerated through the construction of new detention and correctional facilities, and transferred more juveniles into the criminal justice system, where they could be sentenced as adult offenders.

To a certain degree, however, the research in the field of juvenile justice offers us a contrary and somewhat clearer picture of the elements of an effective juvenile justice system, one that reflects the principles of restorative justice and meets three basic objectives:
  • It enables youth to become capable, productive, responsible citizens.

  • It holds juvenile offenders accountable for making their victims whole.

  • It ensures the safety of the community.
Implementing such a system requires a strong state and local framework that includes prevention, early intervention, and graduated sanctions; offers appropriate interagency oversight; and provides adequate funding at the state and local levels. It has the best chance for success when a community's key leaders - including representatives from the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, health and behavioral health systems, schools, law enforcement, and social services - are jointly engaged in its planning, implemention, and operation.

Research tells us this comprehensive approach, integrated across systems, with a full continuum of services, has the best chance to reduce juvenile crime in a sustained and substantial manner. That same research tells us more simplistic solutions, relying too heavily, for example, on transferring youth to the criminal justice system, may actually be counterproductive and result in increased rates of recidivism for many youth-youth who may be more appropriately held accountable and rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system.

This issue of Children's Voice addresses several points along this continuum of services. Community efforts to break the link between child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency, successes in aftercare, and juvenile offenders who have turned their lives around, are all profiled. Acknowledging methods that have found mixed results is also critical, as an article on the lessons learned from juvenile boot camps illustrates. This issue represents both the good and bad news about juvenile justice policy in this country in the 21st Century.

In light of the positive trends and statistical evidence of success, many believe we should be satisfied with our work to date. Yet the opposite is true. Now is when we should step up our efforts and build on the momentum we've created to examine how the juvenile justice system can operate more effectively and help rebuild public confidence in and support for the system. Now is the time to bring a more balanced, restorative approach to juvenile justice policy and practice to full-scale implementation. Now is the time to support our youth, families, and communities in strengthening our current efforts so that, in years to come, we will see even more dramatic and sustained reductions in juvenile offending rates, which are still unacceptably high. And now is the time to reexamine some of the policies implemented over the past 10 years that may not be serving us well.

CWLA will make every effort to bring together the fields of child welfare and juvenile justice to ensure this work takes place and that it results in the full support needed for the safe and healthy development of our children and youth.

Shay Bilchik

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