Thursday, 9 June 2011

Juvenile Justice: policy experts speak back

In two previous stories hosted on Prevention Action this week, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, US, set out what does and doesn’t work in reducing the criminal behavior of juvenile offenders. Scott Henggeler and Sonja Schoenwald suggest that fewer than 5% of eligible high-risk juvenile offenders in the US are treated with an evidence-based treatment.
To get proven programs to the other 95%, they say, researchers need to consider the perspectives and needs of all constituents: the goals of juvenile justice agencies and practitioners, that is, as well as the goals of individuals and families on the receiving end of juvenile justice policies.
What’s more, researchers need to speak explicitly to policy perspectives – for example, by talking about cost-benefit evidence, or by using a public health framework to target both community safety and youth well-being.
So, what do policy experts make of Henggeler and Schoenwald’s analysis and advice?
Punishment vs. prevention
Christopher Slobogin, law professor at Vanderbilt University, US, acknowledges that community-based programs like MST (Multi-systemic Therapy) are more cost-effective than incarceration at rehabilitating juvenile offenders and reducing re-offending, but claims that “the legal system and policymakers are likely to resist such community-based treatments.”
One reason is that legal consequences for serious crimes are meant to punish and hold offenders accountable for their actions: “To many legal professionals and lay people, punishment and accountability can only occur through some sort of detention in prison, jail, or at least a boot camp.”
Slobogin also argues that MST-type programs are unlikely to be the disposition of choice unless the legal system comes to see the goal of any effort to deal with juvenile offenders as prevention and risk management, not punishment – in other words, it comes to be underpinned by a “prevention jurisprudence”:
“Such a system would not be focused on backward-looking assessments of culpability for crimes committed but rather on forward-looking assessments of the risk posed by the juvenile offender and the interventions needed to reduce that risk.
“In a preventive regime, imprisonment of any type would be impermissible when less drastic alternatives such as MST are equally or more effective at reducing recidivism. Detention would be a last resort. Further, transfer to adult court would never be necessary because juvenile detention facilities are capable of housing dangerous offenders.”
Public safety concerns
There is also a strong view that community-based programs are insufficiently protective of the public. Slobogin says, “Programs like MST allow a juvenile offender who has just offended [which may include a violent crime or serious property theft] to remain on the street.”
Peter Panzarella, Director of Substance Abuse Services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, US, concurs, explaining the continued use of residential care and surveillance programs that lack evidence of crime reduction: “Community programs are much more effective, but they can raise the perceived risk for public safety. Long-term gains for the entire community can be overshadowed by a single negative case event, creating accusations that public officials are not concerned about the general public’s safety.”
How the system measures success
Another factor for the low market penetration of evidence-based programs, according to Panzarella, is that the juvenile justice system is not set up to deliver such programs: “Instead of emphasizing fidelity to a model, quality of services or outcomes, the field tends to focus more on process measured and funded capacity, safety, and risk factors. Evidence-based interventions challenge the factors driving procurement, contract bidding, data systems and budgeting to support the services.”
As a consequence, MST, Functional Family Therapy (FFT) and so on are at risk of becoming what Panzarella calls “‘boutique programs’ that do not penetrate on a scale that makes a real difference at a systems level.” This creates additional problems: “Implementation on a small scale raises ethical questions about how youth and families can have equal access to evidence-based interventions.”
Hope from Connecticut
However, the picture is not entirely bleak. Panzarella describes the work in Connecticut, which started including evidence-based interventions in children’s mental health, substance abuse, and crime prevention in 1997. Results of the pilot evaluations were positive, so in order to go to scale they developed a state infrastructure and changed procurement policies to include a new system for measuring implementation fidelity and quality.
A centralized approach was possible because the state is geographically small and has no county government. Connecticut now supports 26 MST teams, with the daily cost of services only $72 compared with about $247 a day for long-term residential adolescent substance abuse treatment.
Hope at the national level
Nationally, the context in the US is becoming more auspicious, argues Samantha Harvell, former Vice President for Early Childhood and Juvenile Justice Policy at the children’s advocacy organization First Focus. She claims that federal policy makers recognize the need to incentivize and expand the use of evidence-based practice with juvenile offender populations and at-risk youth.
She cites a recent re-authorization bill for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA, 2002), passed with bipartisan support, which defined criteria for evidence-based and promising programs and authorized an incentive grant for increasing the use of such programs.
In another example, the recent health care reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, established a $1.5 billion federal grant program supporting home visiting programs serving families with or expecting young children, such as Nurse Family Partnership.
According to Harvell, “The importance of outcome evaluation and focus on evidence-based and promising practice will intensify in the coming months as policy makers at all levels face increasingly tight budgets.
“In fact, given the lingering impacts of the recent recession, the next few years may be the most fruitful for advancing significant cost-saving reforms in juvenile justice and promoting the use of effective programs and practices with juvenile offender and at-risk populations.”
Henggeler, Scott W. and Sonja K. Schoenwald. 2011. “Evidence-based interventions for juvenile offenders and juvenile justice policies that support them.” SRCD Social Policy Report 25(1): 3-20.
Harvell, Samantha. 2011. “Supporting evidence-based juvenile justice practice from the top: progress and possibilities at the federal level.” SRCD Social Policy Report 25(1): 21-22.
Panzarella, Peter. 2011. “One state’s experience: the perspective of a Connecticut administrator.” SRCD Social Policy Report 25(1): 24-25.
Slobogin, Christopher. 2011. “A prevention model of juvenile justice.” SRCD Social Policy Report 25(1): 22-23.
For previous stories in this series, see Juvenile Justice; making "what works" a reality and Juvenile Justice; what works and what does not

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