Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.
Points of Intervention
There are many steps community partners, families, and others can take to positively impact youth both before and after they have encountered the juvenile justice system.
There are distinct points in the juvenile justice process at which communities and agencies can intervene in the lives of youth involved with the system. Though they can vary by state, general examples of such interventions at each of the major steps are shown below. Click on the boxes in Figure 1 to learn more about the different points of intervention within the juvenile justice system.
Figure 1: Juvenile Justice System Intervention Points
Initial contact and referral: When a youth is suspected of committing an offense, the police are often the first to intervene. Law enforcement officers respond to calls from schools, parents, the concerned public, and victims of a suspected offense. When responding to a call, law enforcement officers typically have discretion about how best to respond. Common responses include
- informal “adjustment,” either on site or at the station house;
- diversion of youth from formal processing based on certain conditions; or
- filing of a formal complaint or charges.
Increasingly, law enforcement departments are partnering with community agencies to assist police responding to calls by co-responding with police officers, co-training police on how best to respond to youth, or providing an alternative place for law enforcement officers to take youth other than a detention facility or jail. Communities can partner with law enforcement on such efforts, to ensure that youth are processed in the manner that is best for the community and the youth without undue escalation. Return to Figure 1.
Intake: “Intake” generally refers to the process after a formal referral by law enforcement (or, in some cases, from a parent or family member), during which an assessment process determines whether a case should be dismissed, handled informally, or referred to juvenile court for formal intervention. While the general function of intake is consistent, its structure varies significantly across jurisdictions. Intake may be the responsibility of:
- probation officers,
- the juvenile court,
- the prosecutor’s office,
- a state juvenile justice agency, or
- a centralized intake center.
The discretionary decisions made during intake represent a significant opportunity to identify and engage community-based alternatives to detention. By working with intake units to provide assessment services and diversion opportunities, communities and agencies can ensure that the needs of youth are identified early and that youth are diverted (when appropriate) before they and their families experience the negative effects of system contact. Return to Figure 1.
Diversion: One process that can happen at any point in a youth’s involvement with the juvenile justice system is diversion. Diversion is an attempt to channel young people who commit offenses away from the juvenile justice system. The concept of diversion is based on:
- the theory that processing certain youth through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good 2
- the idea of reducing stigmatization for youth who have committed relatively minor acts might best be handled outside the formal system
- the sentiment that youth should “avoid associating with youth who have a more delinquent history” 3
- the notion that diversion offers a cost-effective method to address overburdened juvenile courts and overcrowded juvenile justice institutions, so that courts and institutions can focus on more serious offenses.
Youth who go through diversion rather than detention are statistically less likely to recidivate or engage in future delinquent behaviors than those who are formally detained through the justice system. 4 For these reasons, placing youth in community rehabilitative settings through diversion programs is accepted as the preferred and most effective method of dealing with juveniles facing minor delinquency charges. 5 Learn more about the impact of diversion programs of youth involved in the juvenile justice system or return to Figure 1.
Detention: The most common use of secure detention facilities is as a short-term “holding” facility for youth while they await processing and/or disposition. However, some states also use detention as a holding facility for youth awaiting placement after adjudication. In any case, detention is not intended to be punitive. The state or local jurisdiction is usually responsible for providing education, recreation, medical attention, assessment, counseling, and other intervention supports and services. The intent is to maintain a youth's well-being during his or her short-term stay in custody.
Alternatives to detention have been a key area of focus in recent years. Crowding of juvenile correctional facilities and the unproven effectiveness of detention and confinement toward rehabilitating youth (oftentimes resulting in more harm than good due to heightened isolation and time spent apart from positive influences such as school and family) are two examples of the logic against youth detention. 6 Learn more about alternatives to detention in Diversion Programs.
Despite these pervading sentiments against detention among researchers in the field, two of the recognized and intended benefits of detention services are maintaining the safety of the public and providing initial quality screening and assessment services for youth who encounter the justice system. The data collected using a validated screening and risk and needs assessment tool can prove to be invaluable to the youth, family, court, and child-serving agencies as decisions are made that address the youth’s future. This is particularly true given the prevalence of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and learning and intellectual disabilities among justice-involved youth. Return to Figure 1.
Judicial processing: Judicial processing includes adjudication and disposition. Adjudication refers to the process of conducting a hearing, considering evidence, and making a delinquency determination. If a youth is found delinquent during the adjudicatory process, a disposition plan is developed. The disposition plan is similar to sentencing within the adult system. This plan details the consequences of the youth’s offense (e.g., probation, placement in a juvenile correctional facility, restitution). Development of the plan is based on a detailed history of the youth and assessment of available support systems and programs. It can include psychological evaluations and diagnostic testing.
There are many opportunities within judicial processing for communities and agencies to work with the courts. These entities can provide diagnostic and evaluation services, collaborate with the justice system to establish diversion options for youth, and establish community-based programs and services that can be incorporated into a dispositional plan. Return to Figure 1.
Dismissal: Another option in the decision-making process for juveniles who commit offenses is an order of dismissal of the pending case prior to adjudication. The delinquency charge is dropped but the conduct/behavior involved in the charge may be considered by the court and the court may order restitution or another disposition. If the court chooses to dismiss the case, the offense is identified as a dismissal rather than an adjudication in the youth’s court record. Return to Figure 1.
Probation supervision: Probation supervision is the most common disposition within the juvenile justice system. Probation supervision is frequently accompanied by other court-imposed conditions, such as community service, restitution, or participation in community treatment services. For youth on probation supervision, this can be an important opportunity to provide physical and mental health services and other supports.
Partnerships with communities and agencies can ensure that there is a range of services and programs available to meet the needs of youth on probation supervision. Services offered by community partners may include:
- the implementation of training and technical assistance programs for probation officers
- counseling and other therapeutic programs7
- sponsored activities that foster connection between the youth, their families, and their communities
- accessible programming that promotes positive youth development
A community partnership approach that centers youth developmental needs shows promise in mitigating unnecessary punitive measures and high rates of recidivism, and provides youth with the necessary tools to make better decisions as they transition into adulthood.8 Return to Figure 1.
Secure correctional placement: Placement in a secure juvenile correctional facility is the most restrictive disposition that a youth in the juvenile justice system can receive. Although all juvenile correctional facilities are designed to impose a sanction on the youth, protect the public, and provide some type of structured rehabilitative environment,9 the characteristics of these facilities vary significantly.
Because of their secure nature and long-term custody of youth, these facilities are responsible for providing a range of comprehensive, individualized, and sustained services similar to those in detention (i.e., educational, recreational, medical, assessment, and counseling). However, some facilities have been criticized as being inappropriate for rehabilitative programming and for fostering physical and sexual abuse and maltreatment, with 5.8 percent of youth in state juvenile facilities and large non-state juvenile facilities in 2018 reporting sexual misconduct by facility staff.10 Furthermore, when youth serve long-term sentences in these facilities, their confinement creates a significant separation from the families and communities that they will return to, thus creating a substantial obstacle to successful reentry upon release.11 This obstacle is created despite the opportunity for beneficial long-term treatment, educational, vocational, and medical services that may accompany their extended time spent in the facility. Scholars argue that the separation created from positive everyday influences in their lives makes it very difficult for the effects of any type of therapeutic intervention to be sustained.12 Such circumstances are correlated with difficulties adjusting upon reentry into the community and high rates of recidivism. 13
Youth who end up in correctional placement should be afforded access to effective, evidence-based services and supports relevant to their needs, through effective collaboration between facilities, the community, and applicable agencies. Return to Figure 1.
Reentry: Reentry is the final point in the juvenile justice processing continuum, and incorporates programs and services that assist youth transitioning from juvenile justice placement back into the community.14 An effective reentry program involves collaboration between the juvenile justice facility staff, probation/parole officers, and case managers with other child-serving systems and community partners and agencies. This process begins well in advance of a youth’s release and ensures that the youth is linked with effective community-based services, which can be critical to their long-term success.
Since one of the goals of reentry planning is to link youth with community physical and mental health services and other supports that will be available after contact with the juvenile justice system ceases, reentry is a logical point in the juvenile justice system for a partnership with communities. These efforts are typically managed/supervised by a probation/parole officer. Communities must partner with correctional facilities to provide reentry planning and services to youth who will continue to require care upon release. These efforts need to begin early—shortly after the youth enters the facility—and should, whenever possible, involve the youth, their family, residential facility staff, the probation/parole officer, schools, mental/behavioral health service providers, and other representatives from the community-based agencies that will be working with the child or adolescent on release from care. Learn more about reentry or return to Figure 1.
Expunging Juvenile Records: Misconceptions, Collateral Consequences, and Emerging Practices (PDF, 12 pages)
This bulletin discusses common misconceptions surrounding expungement and clarifies the differences between expungement, sealing, and confidentiality as methods for destroying or limiting access to juvenile records. It also provides information about the collateral consequences of juvenile records as well as federal, state, and local emerging practices.
Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Settings (PDF, 38 pages)
This report provides five guiding principles recommended by the federal government to provide high-quality education to youth in juvenile justice secure settings. The suggested principles create environments conducive to teaching, learning, social-emotional supports, and positive educational outcomes for youth that lessen likelihood to reenter the justice system.
Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections: Transition and Reentry (PDF, 7 pages)
This source summarizes best practices for helping youth with disabilities transition out of the juvenile justice system and reenter their communities. Included within the document are countless resources and websites with information for previously incarcerated youth and youth with disabilities, parents and families of incarcerated youth, as well as educators and other after-care community partners.
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Legislation
Visit this webpage to view theJuvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act Reauthorization of 2018, the Redline Version: Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act as Amended by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, and related legislation. These sources enacted by Congress have enabled the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to support efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the juvenile justice system and prevent delinquency before it happens.
Model Programs Guide: Practices
This guide presents evidence-based juvenile justice and youth prevention, intervention, and reentry programs. Each program is rated either effective, promising, or no effect. Users can find 18 Delinquency Prevention programs (e.g., arts-based programs and therapies, jobs and workforce development, school-based programming, violence prevention) and 13 programs focused on Detention, Confinement, and Supervision (e.g., reentry/aftercare, diversion, residential treatment centers, comprehensive/wrap around services). It also contains information on other programming in varying content areas.
National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk (NDTAC)
This website serves as an information hub, technical assistance center, resource for program evaluation and data reporting, and a facilitator of information and peer-to-peer learning in relation to educational programming for youth who are neglected, delinquent, or at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Users can access webinars and conferences on the site and explore resources for parents, families, and service providers for neglected or delinquent youth.
Protecting the Civil Rights of Students in the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 4 pages)
This publication highlights some of the disparities youth involved in the juvenile justice system face while in detainment and/or out-of-home placement. Gender and racial disparities within justice facilities are discussed, as are disparate educational programming, teacher quality, and information on the rights of youth in these facilities and the protections they are entitled to under the Office of Civil Rights.
Reentry Starts Here: A Guide for Youth in Long-Term Juvenile Corrections and Treatment Programs (PDF, 36 pages)
This youth-centered toolkit equips incarcerated minors with a guide on what to expect upon reentry and what footwork they should be doing while still in a juvenile correctional facility and well after. The guide is organized into two sections: planning for reentry while in placement and successful reentry into your community. Included are descriptions regarding common barriers youth may encounter upon reentry as well as tools and action steps to help them overcome those barriers.
Rights of Juveniles
This webpage regarding the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Department of Justice is a resource for those who suspect maltreatment or unnecessary confinement in a juvenile justice facility. The page offers phone numbers and email contact information for community Special Litigation Section partners where information can be received regarding a juvenile justice case or concern.
Vulnerable Population: Incarcerated Youth
For youth, parents, community members, or practitioners who need a starting point to familiarize themselves with the juvenile justice system and processes, this fact sheet may be a good place to start. It provides basic definitions and fast facts as well as links to various government reports and publications focusing on the juvenile justice system.
1 Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
2 Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
3Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014; Petrosino, Turpin–Petrosino & Guckenburg, 2010
4Ryon et al., 2013
5 Austin, Johnson, & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
6 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017
7 The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021
8 Bilchik, 1998
9 Greenwood, et al., 1996; Smith & Stroop, 2019
10 Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
11 Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
12 Austin, Johnson & Weitzer, 2005; Development Services Group, Inc., 2014
13 Geis, 2003; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017
14 Platt et al., 2015; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017
Other Resources on this Topic
Tools & Guides
Videos & Podcasts
Webinars & Presentations