behavior is driven by the same risk factors and developmental processes that influence the behavior of other juvenile offenders.
During the past two decades, many youth have come to the attention of the juvenile justice system from schools, child welfare agencies, and the mental health system. Zerotolerance policies are increasing the number of suspensions and expulsions from schools, leading to increased risk of drop-out and juvenile justice involvement. Crossover youth, who move between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and youth with mental health disorders are more likely to be treated harshly in the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, black and ethnic minority youth make up a disproportionate number of adolescents disciplined by the schools, managed by the child welfare system, and diagnosed with the kinds of mental disorders (e.g., emotional disturbances) that are less likely to make them eligible for smaller, more specialized treatment programs.
The scientific literature shows that three conditions are critically important to healthy psychological development in adolescence: (1) the presence of a parent or parent figure who is involved with the adolescent and concerned about his or her successful development, (2) inclusion in a peer group that values and models prosocial behavior and academic success, and (3) activities that contribute to autonomous decision making and critical thinking. Schools, extracurricular activities, and work settings can provide opportunities for adolescents to learn to think for themselves, develop self-reliance and self-efficacy, and improve reasoning skills.
Yet the juvenile justice system’s heavy reliance on containment, confinement, and control removes youth from their families, peer groups, and neighborhoods—the social context of their future lives—and deprives them of the opportunity to learn to deal with life’s challenges. For many youth, the lack of a positive social context during this important developmental period is further compounded by collateral consequences of justice system involvement, such as the public release of juvenile records that follow them throughout their lives and limit future educational and employment opportunities.
Economically disadvantaged and minority youth are particularly affected by a juvenile justice system in which they are disproportionately represented. There is evidence that “race matters” above and beyond the characteristics of an offense. With few exceptions, data consistently show that youth of color have been overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system. The evidence for race effects is greatest at the earlier stages of the process, particularly at the stages of arrest, referral to court, and placement in secure detention. And in nearly all juvenile justice systems, youth of color also remain in the system longer than white youth.
During the past 15 years, substantial progress has been made by various states and local jurisdictions in embracing and implementing a more