New research could lead to reforms in juvenile justice system


A near-capacity crowd at Milwaukee Area Technical College gathered in March to hear Bryan Stevenson speak. Stevenson told several stories about the wrongfully imprisoned, many he’s represented – adults on death row and youth in adult prisons.

Stevenson is a renowned human rights lawyer, author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization committed to reforms, fair and just treatment to the imprisoned and condemned. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief of release for over 115 wrongly condemned prisoners.

Two decades of research are now showing that youth tried as adults aren’t deterred from committing crimes again.

The Pacific Standard magazine reports:

After two decades of trying tens of thousands of minors as adults every year, there’s little evidence the practice deters kids from committing crimes again, according to a new meta-analysis of previous studies.

Instead, when researchers pooled data from different papers, they found young people who are transferred to adult courts have higher recidivism rates. Still, because the results of each of the studies varied so much, it’s hard to pin down what’s going on, write the authors of the analysis, a team of criminologists from Northeastern and Florida State universities. Maybe trying kids as adults works some of the time — perhaps for older teenagers, or repeat offenders. We simply don’t know for sure.

Juvenile courts are set up to be less punitive than adult courts, and to send defendants to therapy and rehabilitation programs instead of prison. The idea is that folks younger than 17 or 18 are less culpable for their crimes because they haven’t fully matured — a notion neuroscience supports—and are more amenable to learning and reform.

The 1980s and ’90s saw a sharp rise in the rates of serious crimes such as rapes and murders committed by young people. That prompted “nearly every state” to pass laws making it easier for prosecutors and judges to send youths into the ordinary criminal justice system to face harsher punishments, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For more on this research, visit Pacific Standard.



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