whose parents had failed them and whose offending conduct could readily be redirected by the benevolent state. Today a more sophisticated understanding of adolescent development recognizes that young offenders are neither children nor adults, but adolescents whose criminal activity is often a predictable, and transient, feature of adolescence itself. This knowledge provides a foundation for a juvenile system that takes proper account of the formative nature of adolescence, by both ensuring genuine accountability for the harms young offenders cause while responding to their criminal conduct through interventions that are likely to decrease its incidence and enhance their prospects for productive adult lives.
Lawmakers around the country have shown an increasing interest in developmental knowledge and its potential to provide new understandings of juvenile crime and of effective dispositions. Over the past decade, legislatures and other policy makers have come to accept a proposition that was vehemently rejected only a few years earlier: that adolescent offenders are different from adults and these differences are important to juvenile justice. In part, the interest in developmental knowledge is a pragmatic response to evidence that the punitive policies of the 1990s were very costly and failed to reduce juvenile crime (which subsequently did drop for unexplained reasons), and some evidence-based programs promised to be more effective. But attitudes toward young offenders have changed in important ways from the days when young offenders were labeled “super-predators” (Dilulio, 1995), and the research has reinforced these changes; today there seems to be a genuine concern to deal fairly with young offenders in the justice system and to intervene in their lives in ways that preserve their future prospects.
The committee concludes that the incorporation of contemporary scientific knowledge about adolescence and juvenile crime is likely to result in juvenile justice policies and practices that are both fairer and more effective at reducing crime than policies of earlier periods. Today an important opportunity for major policy reform exists, created by a substantial body of developmental knowledge and policy makers receptive to its importance. Knowledge about adolescent offending and about optimal preventive and rehabilitative responses is far from complete. There are many gaps in understanding. But the research is sufficiently robust to offer general guidance to lawmakers and practitioners about an effective approach to juvenile justice policy.
This chapter has sketched a framework for policy reform based on advances in developmental science. The next two chapters focus on the three complementary goals of the juvenile justice system—preventing reoffending (see Chapter 6) and assuring accountability of juveniles and treating them fairly (see Chapter 7).