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Transforming Juvenile Justice into Rehabilitation
Brittany M. Rouiller
George Mason University
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Transforming Juvenile Justice into Rehabilitation
The idea of juvenile justice is a relatively newer concept in the history of the United States. It wasn’t until the last 100 years that juveniles were tried in a different system than their adult counterparts. The theory behind the separate system was to create a more rehabilitative alternative to the adult criminal justice system (CJCJ). The theory and practice of this system has proven to miss the mark. In the following sections the disconnect of the theory and practice of the juvenile justice system will be explored as well as policy suggestions to close this gap.
The Problem
In 1997 Mark Salzman was working on a novel where one of his main characters was a juvenile delinquent. To help him develop this character he asked his friend Duane if he could sit in on a writing class he taught in the juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Salzman expected to simply get some fodder to build up his character, to his surprise he got roped into teaching his own class at the center and learned a lesson in the process. He documents about this experience in his book, True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall (Salzman, 1997).
Salzman, like many people, believed the children in these detention centers were simply bad and delinquents that should be separated from society. Much to his surprise, through teaching the class, he got to know the boys as individuals and saw that were just kids, many of which had been through a lot at an early age. He realized giving the boys an outlet for their anger and frustration could help them be less violent and process the pain they had experienced in the past (Salzman, 1997).
Prior to Salzman’s experience he thought very little about the wellbeing of the juveniles in detention and thought they should be there (Salzman, 1997). At the time his book was written in 1997 there were 105,055 juveniles being held in detention centers. The good news is that in the time since it was written that number has drastically dropped to around 45,567 in 2016 (OJJDP, 2018). That is a decrease of 43%. Despite the decrease in juveniles being held there appears to be an increase in the proportion of juveniles under the age of 18 being held as adults in adult correctional facilities. As of 2014 about 88% of youth under the age of 17 in detention were being held in adult prisons (OJJDP, 2015). Although it appears the United States has begun to imprison youth less frequently, the statistics suggest those that are in detention are residing in adult facilities. Taking youth out of the juvenile detention centers and throwing them into adult prisons not only puts them at risk but removes them from what should be a restorative justice focused experience to one of simply punishment.
In Salzman’s novel he asks the boys in the center many questions about their daily life, often needing clarification on the things they talk about in class. One day the boys were discussing another boy being put in the ‘box’. The ‘box’ the boys described as solitary confinement. The mentioned that often when a boy loses his case the guards put him there to keep him from committing suicide (Salzman, 1997). It seems the center is not equipped to help resolve the issues these boys face, but simply to mitigate serious side effects of detention rather than help the boys process and move on.
The causes of this problem are hard to pinpoint as they are varied and multi-faceted. Some of the primary causes that show up frequently in research are the effect of negative family impact, poor education, and adverse peer relationships (Wang, 2011). All of these effects are highlighted in the experiences the boys Salzman teaches share. The boys share their experience of growing up in broken homes, joining gangs, and not having much interest or support in school (Salzman, 1997). From the broken beginnings to a juvenile detention center these youths had very little support to make a change for themselves and turn their lives around. They are placed in a system that should help with rehabilitation but as the boys in Salzman’s novel described; they learn how not to get caught next time in the detention center. Rather than learning how to succeed in a life without crime (Salzman, 1997). Unfortunately, the National Criminal Justice Reference Statistics (NCJRS) does not track juvenile recidivism as each state and locality track this differently so there is no known statistic to determine the level of efficacy of these centers for rehabilitation other than to simply look at our adult prison population, which is the largest in the world with 670 prisoners for every 100,000 people (The Sentencing Project).
With such a multi-faceted problem it can be difficult to find a solution. With so many causes impacting the delinquency of juveniles to put them into this system it is important to look at what forms of rehabilitation methods have worked rather than deferring back to the punishment model of justice. In the following section a variety of policy suggestions will be discussed to explore alternatives to punishment and improving the United States Juvenile Justice system.
Policy Changes
With such a complicated problem a variety of perspectives are necessary to combat the inefficacy of the juvenile justice system and put it back on track to make it the rehabilitative system it was meant to be. I suggest three major policy focuses: Increasing trauma informed detention centers to focus on rehabilitation, taking youth out of adult prisons, and pushing for a stronger focus on restorative justice over punishment.
Trauma Informed Rehabilitation
Although rehabilitation is a well-known goal of the juvenile justice system, this is an area for much needed change. It has been found that many youths in juvenile justice centers have experienced a great deal of psychological trauma. Results of a large-scale study found that 92.5% of detainees with the average age of 14 were found to have experienced one major traumatic event in their lives while 50% had experienced six or more (Ford, 2013). If the rehabilitation systems are not set up to deal with the trauma these youths have experienced it will fail. Based on the statistics, it is time to take a look at the rehabilitation methods we are using and change those methods to a more trauma-informed focus. Paired with trauma experiences early in life, it is estimated that at any time between 67% to 90% of youth detained have at least one mental health diagnosis. These youths also have a prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a rate of 10 to 15 times that of the general population (Ford, 2013). These are facts that cannot be ignored. I propose all juvenile justice centers be required to not only increase the amount of therapeutic counseling but make the environment more like a home than the institutional prison they are today. If the youth are given the chance to work through their mental illness and trauma they will be less likely to reoffend. Using models more similar to a drug or alcohol rehabilitation center can help individuals develop relationships with supportive adults through counseling which not only provides role models, but also teaches necessary coping skills to deal with past experience trauma and build social skills.
Taking the models of group counseling to develop social and coping skills illustrated by Ford and expanding those methods to a center that is less institutional and more supportive to youth could help transform the punitive system that currently exists into the rehabilitation system it was meant to be. On the same token, it is important to note the importance of environment. The next policy change pushes to take youth out of adult prisons.
Detaining Youth in Youth Centers Not with Adults
As discussed earlier, the number of juveniles being detained has decreased, in contrast the number of juveniles being detained in adult prisons is still very high. As of 2016 there were over 4,000 youths serving time as adults in adult corrections facilities (The Sentencing Project). The boys in True Notebooks were those that committed serious crimes, and although were serving time in a juvenile facility many of them were set to be tried as adults and if they lost the case they would immediately be sent to an adult prison. They felt that they had no purpose for living. It was likely their entire life would be spent behind bars, beginning at age 15 if they were to lose their case (Salzman, 1997).
This theme goes directly against what the juvenile justice system was built to do. What is the point of having a separate system for those under 18 if juvenile offenders are going to be tried as if they were an adult. It is a widely known fact that our brains continue develop impulse control through our early 20’s. It does not seem fair to hold juveniles to the same standards or getting the same punishments when they biologically are not yet able to always control the impulses that got them to offend in the first place. Placing youth in adult corrections facilities takes out rehabilitation out of the equation for their future. If youth are not given the opportunity to rehabilitate it is no wonder the U.S. prison system houses the largest proportion of the population in the world (The Sentencing Project).
Restorative Justice Focused Programs in Youth Centers
The last policy change I suggest for improving the efficiency and rehabilitative focus of juvenile justice systems is transforming the focus from punishment to restorative justice. Although the restorative justice movement has expanded over the last few decades, I think implementing a policy that formally changes this focus would be beneficial.
Restorative Justice focuses on repairing the harm done by the crime by bringing together the community, victim, and offender in a meeting to discuss the impact of the crime. This perspective on dealing with crime has proven to be successful in creating change (About Restorative Justice). This perspective, especially when prescribed to youth can make major changes. In many cases youth who as stated earlier, come from broken homes, have a mental illness, or have experienced their own trauma. In many cases the youth may not realize the impact of their actions. Simply by utilizing the restorative justice model perhaps youth will become more aware of the consequences of their actions on others and in turn can facilitate change for the better.

About Restorative Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2018, from
CJCJ. Juvenile Justice History – Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2018, from
Ford, Julian, and Margaret Blaustein. “Systemic Self-Regulation: A Framework for Trauma-Informed Services in Residential Juvenile Justice Programs.” Journal of Family Violence, vol. 28, no. 7, 2013, pp. 665–677., doi:10.1007/s10896-013-9538-5.
Oakley, R. (2004). How the mind hurts and heals the body. American Psychologist, 12(1), 25-47. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.29.
OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. Online. Available: Released on March 27, 2018
Salzman, M.. (1997). True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year in Juvenile Hall. New York: Random House
The Sentencing Project. (2018, June). Trends in U.S. Corrections. Retrieved September 30, 2018, from
Wang, P. (2011). Analysis of the causes of Juvenile Delinquency. 2011 International Conference on Management and Service Science. doi:10.1109/ICMSS.2011.5999272
What is the National Juvenile Recidivism rate? (n.d.). NCJRS. Retrieved from

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