Since the beginning of recorded history, human societies have observed an age-based distinction among people considered offenders or wrongdoers: Young people who break societal norms are frequently treated differently than their adult counterparts. (There have been exceptions in various eras and cultures, of course, but the overall historical trend favors some degree of separation between juveniles and adults.) Similarly, girls and women involved in the criminal legal system are often treated differently than boys and men. Perception and understanding can evolve and human-made customs can and do change. Despite centuries of patchwork reforms–often with the best of intentions–today’s juvenile justice system remains highly flawed and grossly unfair. Black girls encounter adultification bias (meaning they are perceived as older and less innocent than others their age) and are pushed out of school for behavior that is criminalized (even if engaged in as a means of survival). Heated debates rage over the best ways to move forward.
Experts and advocates believe urgent areas for reform of the juvenile justice system include:
- Sentencing reform, needed nationally to address our country’s mass incarceration crisis, must guide our attempts to improve the juvenile justice system. Policies must be developed to reduce incarceration rates and corresponding racial disparities in incarceration.
- Community reinvestment can help redirect resources that would otherwise be used for traditional punitive measures (police, prisons, community supervision, etc.) toward effective community-based solutions. Led by members of the very communities most affected by these issues, such programs would reduce overreliance on incarceration.
- Structural racism and racial disparities plague our justice system. We must pursue and invest in innovative strategies to dismantle the structural racism poisoning so much of our social and justice systems.
- Sexuality and gender identities should inform today’s discussions of youth, helping to foreground the recognition of teens’ rights to sexual expression and the valuing of gender identities. A growing knowledge of the widespread personal histories of sexual abuse is dramatically altering perceptions of teens, fostering models of healing rather than punishment.
- Closing youth prisons outright is imperative. Without reducing the sheer number of prisons in our country, it will be impossible to shift resources away from warehousing youth to effective, community-based solutions.
- “Raising the age,” or working to end the policies and statutes that lead to youth being tried and sentenced as adults, is one impactful strategy to quickly reduce youth incarceration rates. Reversing policies created during the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s will halt the thoughtless and harmful impact of trying and sentencing teenagers as adults.
There are reasons for optimism: Defenders are more often arguing for the rights of juveniles charged with delinquency. After decades of tacit public support for state intervention in juvenile misconduct (challenges to the old legal concepts of parens patriae and in loco parentis) are multiplying. Change is brewing: Juvenile “offenders,” so long viewed as a problem for the state, are increasingly seen as a symptom of community disinvestment and neglect. How can we reverse harmful old patterns and support communities, families, and youth before they get involved in the justice system?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). Examples include: experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home or community; having a family member attempt or die by suicide
Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine a sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as growing up in a household with: substance use problems; mental health problems; instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison
ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood and can also negatively impact education and job opportunities. However, ACEs can be prevented.
See also: ACE Study
, ACE Quiz
In 2017, Georgetown Law’s research uncovered a form of bias Black women and girls already knew well from experience: adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, even in the 5 to 9-year-old age bracket. We’re working to raise public awareness and overcome this form of bias.
Ban the box
An initiative to remove the criminal history background box from applications and employment which has happened across the country, particularly in universities. California's “ban the box” law went into effect in 2018. It prohibits employers from asking about criminal history before a job offer has been made. It applies to employers with five or more workers. Once an offer has been made, an employer cannot rescind it simply because of an applicant's criminal past.
is when a court appoints someone to manage an incapacitated person or minor's financial (and sometimes personal) affairs. This was Brittany Spear’s experience
A term (from the Greek εὐγενής, meaning “well-born”) coined in 1883 by Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton who declared it "a virile creed, full of hopefulness" to define the modern “science” that “deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” Soon, the United States, along with Germany, was at the forefront of the movement to improve the human species through breeding.
Sir Francis Galton
was an English Victorian era polymath: a statistician, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician and a proponent of social Darwinism, eugenics and scientific racism. He was knighted in 1909. A later version of social engineering that added the environment to genetics
was introduced in Brazil by Roquette Pinto.
Houses of refuge vs. Schools of reform
"By the mid-1800s, houses of refuge were enthusiastically declared a great success. Managers even advertised their houses in magazines for youth. Managers took great pride in seemingly turning total misfits into productive, hard-working members of society" (Simonsen & Gordon, 1982, p. 23). However, these claims of success were not undisputed and, by 1850, it was widely recognized that houses of refuge were largely failures when it came to rehabilitating delinquents and had become much like prisons. As Simonsen and Gordon stated, "In 1849 the New York City police chief publicly warned that the numbers of vicious and vagrant youth were increasing and that something must be done. And done it was. America moved from a time of houses of refuge into a time of preventive agencies and reform schools". In spite of good intentions, the new reform schools–existing in both England and the United States by the 1850s–were not effective in reducing the incidence of delinquency. Despite early enthusiasm among reformers, there was little evidence that rehabilitation was being accomplished.
The literal definition is “unable to be reformed or corrected.” A term historically used to label youth–especially girls–as delinquent. The word was used in New York State until 2021 when it was struck from the books.
The complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. "[Kimberlé] Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality, the idea that when it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct." —Adia Harvey Wingfield
Jim Crow Laws
United States [1877-1954]
What were Jim Crow laws?
Jim Crow law, in U.S. history, refers to any of the laws that enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
How did Jim Crow laws get their name?
Jim Crow was the name of a minstrel routine (actually Jump Jim Crow) performed beginning in 1828 by its author, Thomas Dartmouth ("Daddy") Rice, and by many imitators, including actor Joseph Jefferson. The term came to be a derogatory epithet for African Americans and a designation for their segregated life.
How were Jim Crow laws used?
From the late 1870s, Southern state legislatures, no longer controlled by so-called carpetbaggers and freedmen, passed laws requiring the separation of whites from "persons of color" in public transportation and schools. Generally, anyone of ascertainable or strongly suspected Black ancestry in any degree was for that purpose a "person of color;" the pre-Civil War distinction favoring those whose ancestry was known to be mixed—particularly the half-French "free persons of color" in Louisiana—was abandoned. The segregation principle was extended to parks, cemeteries, theatres, and restaurants in an effort to prevent any contact between Blacks and whites as equals. It was codified on local and state levels and most famously with the "separate but equal" decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
In 1954 the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. It declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional and, by extension, the ruling was applied to other public facilities. In the years following, subsequent decisions struck down similar kinds of Jim Crow legislation.
Jim Crow Juvenile Justice
The assertion that youth prisons are a legacy of slavery and that it is time to turn the page. In the US, African American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, even when charged with similar offenses. Watch the 8-min video from Youth First.
1: conduct by a juvenile characterized by antisocial behavior that is beyond parental control and therefore subject to legal action
2: a violation of the law committed by a juvenile and not punishable by death or life imprisonment
The Juvenile Justice System
A separate juvenile justice system was established in the United States about 100 years ago with the goal of diverting youthful offenders from the destructive punishments of criminal courts and encouraging rehabilitation based on the individual juvenile's needs. This system was to differ from adult or criminal court in a number of ways. It was to focus on the child or adolescent as “a person in need of assistance (PIN),” not on the act that brought him or her before the court. The proceedings were informal, with much discretion left to the juvenile court judge. Because the judge was to act in the best interest of the child, procedural safeguards available to adults (such as the right to an attorney, the right to know the charges brought against one, the right to trial by jury, and the right to confront one's accuser), were thought unnecessary. Juvenile court proceedings were closed to the public and juvenile records were to remain confidential so as not to interfere with the child's or adolescent's ability to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. The very language used in juvenile court underscored these differences. Juveniles are not charged with crimes, but rather with delinquencies; they are not found guilty, but rather are adjudicated delinquent; they are not sent to prison, but to a training school or reformatory.
In practice, there was always a tension between social welfare and social control—that is, focusing on the best interests of the individual child versus focusing on punishment, incapacitation, and protecting society from certain offenses. This tension has shifted over time, varying significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and it remains today.
The Juvenile Family Court
The center of the juvenile justice system (Moore and Wakeling, 1997). In fact, the term juvenile justice is often used synonymously with the juvenile court, but it also may refer to other affiliated institutions in addition to the court, including the police, prosecuting and defense attorneys, probation, juvenile detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities (Rosenheim, 1983).
[adv.] in the place of a parent, e.g.school officials acting in loco parentis
[noun] regulation or supervision by an administrative body acting in loco parentis
Middle Passage, the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. It was one leg of the triangular trade route that took goods (such as knives, guns, ammunition, cotton cloth, tools, and brass dishes) from Europe to Africa, Africans to work as slaves in the Americas and West Indies, and items, mostly raw materials, produced on the plantations (sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo, rum, and cotton) back to Europe. From about 1518 to the mid-19th century, millions of African men, women, and children made the 21-to-90-day voyage aboard grossly overcrowded sailing ships manned by crews mostly from Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and France.
The effective practice of medicine requires narrative competence, that is, the ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence, called narrative medicine, is proposed as a model for humane and effective medical practice. Term and practice founded by Rita Charon.
[noun] the state in its capacity as the legal guardian of persons not sui juris and without natural guardians, as the heir to persons without natural heirs, and as the protector of all citizens unable to protect themselves. Etymology: Latin, parent of the country "Because the State is supposed to proceed in respect of the child as parens patriae and not as adversary." — Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966)
Petit Larceny, Grand Larceny and Shoplifting
Like many states, New York classifies its larceny offenses according to the value of the stolen property—and, in some cases, according to the type of property involved in the larceny. The lowest-level larceny offense in New York is called petit larceny, it involves stolen property worth $1,000 or less. Petit larceny is a class A misdemeanor, which subjects the offender to up to 364 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Article by Kat McClain.
Radical Listening: Less Talk, More Leadership
Lainie Heneghan argues that, ... to influence a broad and diverse set of stakeholders, the way you listen is just as important as the way you speak, perhaps even more so. Listening tends to be invisible, yet it has a more powerful presence than people sometimes realize. We may not always notice when it is present, but we almost always notice when it is not.
Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime and conflict. It places decisions in the hands of those who have been most affected by wrongdoing, and gives equal consideration to the victim, the offender, and the surrounding community. Restorative responses to crime and conflict, such as peace-making circles, are designed to repair the harm, heal broken relationships, and address the underlying reasons for the offense.
See also: Types and degrees of restorative justice
and a guide to Restorative Justice at School
School to Prison Pipeline
Decried by reformers of the juvenile justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, refers to the relatively new phenomenon of police officers in educational spaces. Student behavior that would once have been addressed by teachers or counselors is now often handled by police and punitive legal measures rather than a therapeutic approach. Monique Morris argues that the “pipeline”
framework has been largely developed from the conditions and experiences of males. It limits our ability to see the ways in which Black girls are affected by surveillance (zero-tolerance policies, law enforcement in schools, metal detectors, etc.) and the ways in which advocates, scholars, and other stakeholders may have wrongfully masculinized Black girls’ experiences.
Nearly 100,000 young people are drawn into the juvenile justice system each year for status offenses. These behaviors–such as truancy, running away and curfew violations-are not crimes, but they are prohibited under the law because of a youth’s status as a minor.
A technical violation of probation or parole is misbehavior by an offender under supervision that is not by itself a criminal offense and generally does not result in arrest (e.g. failing to report for a scheduled office visit, missing a curfew, lack of employment or attendance at school, testing positive for drug or alcohol use, or contacting a victim or co-defendant). Serious technical violations (e.g., escape or repeated failure to report, violent crime) or a pattern of misbehavior while on probation or parole, however, can result in re-imprisonment.
"Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence."
Trauma Informed Care
Trauma-informed care shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” A trauma-informed approach to care acknowledges that health care organizations and individuals need to have a complete picture of a person’s life situation — past and present — in order to provide effective health care services with a healing orientation. Adopting trauma-informed practices can potentially improve engagement, treatment adherence, and health outcomes, as well as provider and staff wellness. Trauma-informed care seeks to:
- Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand paths for recovery;
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in patients, families, and staff;
- Integrate knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
- Actively avoid re-traumatization.
See also: 6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach