Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach

According to a new report from National Research Council at the National Academies, legal responses to juvenile offending should be grounded in emerging scientific knowledge about adolescent development, and tailored to an individual offender's needs and social environment. The report, “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” highlights evidence that indicates that during adolescence the brain is still immature; adolescents are less able to regulate their behavior, they are more sensitive to external influences (such as peer pressure and immediate reward), and they show less ability to make judgments and decisions that require future orientation. Thus, accountability practices should not be carried over from criminal courts (which are designed for adult offenders) to juvenile courts.

The report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, finds that our current juvenile justice system, which relies heavily on confinement (much like the criminal justice system), routinely deprives youth of three conditions that are critically important to healthy adolescent development: active involvement by a parent figure, peer groups that value positive socialization and academic success, and activities that contribute to decision-making and critical-thinking abilities. In particular, confinement (or “serving time”) is not needed to assure that juveniles are held accountable, and in fact should be used only in rare circumstances, such as when a youth poses a high risk of harming others.

Instead, juvenile justice systems should put more emphasis on encouraging offender accountability through restorative justice, engaging in community service, and helping youths take responsibility and make amends for their actions. Juvenile justice systems should help prevent reoffending through structured risk and needs assessments and using interventions rooted in knowledge about adolescent development.

The report concludes that changes are needed if the juvenile justice system is to meet its aims of holding adolescents accountable, preventing reoffending, and treating them fairly. In particular state and tribal governments should establish task forces or commissions to assess their current juvenile justice systems, and align laws, policies and practices with evolving knowledge around adolescent development and evidence-based programs. These groups should intensify effort and eliminate any policies that target or disadvantage minorities, which are overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system.

To read the full report, please visit

To watch the public briefing held by the Committee on Law and Justice on June 10, 2013, please visit

To learn more about juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, please visit