In response to the increase in violent crime in the 1980s, state legal reforms in juvenile justice, particularly those that deal with serious offenses, have stressed punitiveness, accountability, and a concern for public safety, rejecting traditional concerns for diversion and rehabilitation in favor of a get-tough approach to juvenile crime and punishment. This change in emphasis from a focus on rehabilitating the individual to punishing the act is exemplified by the 17 states that redefined the purpose clause of their juvenile courts to emphasize public safety, certainty of sanctions, and offender accountability (Torbet and Szymanski, 1998). Inherent in this change in focus is the belief that the juvenile justice system is too soft on delinquents, who are thought to be potentially as much a threat to public safety as their adult criminal counterparts.
It is important to remember that the United States has at least 51 different juvenile justice systems, not one. Each state and the District of Columbia has its own laws that govern its juvenile justice system. How juvenile courts operate may vary from county to county and municipality to municipality within a state. The federal government has jurisdiction over a small number of juveniles, such as those who commit crimes on Indian reservations or in national parks, and it has its own laws to govern juveniles within its system. States that receive money under the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act must meet certain requirements, such as not housing juveniles with adults in detention or incarceration facilities, but it is state law that governs the structure of juvenile courts and juvenile corrections facilities. When this report refers to the juvenile justice system, it is referring to a generic framework that is more or less representative of what happens in any given state.
Legal reforms and policy changes that have taken place under the get-tough rubric include more aggressive policing of juveniles, making it easier (or in some cases mandatory) to treat a juvenile who has committed certain offenses as an adult, moving decision making about where to try a juvenile from the judge to the prosecutor or the state legislature, changing sentencing options, and opening juvenile proceedings and records.
Changes in laws do not necessarily translate into changes in practice. In addition to the belief that at least some juvenile offenders are amenable to treatment and rehabilitation, other factors limit overreliance on get-tough measures: (1) the expense of incarceration, (2) overcrowding that results from sentencing offenders more harshly, and (3) research evidence that finds few gains, in terms of reduced rates of recidivism, from simply incapacitating youth without any attention to treatment or rehabilitation (Beck and Shipley, 1987; Byrne and Kelly, 1989; Hagan, 1991; National Research Council, 1993a; National Research Council, 1993b; Shannon et al., 1988). Practice may also move in ways not envisioned when laws are passed. For example, many jurisdictions have been experimenting with