Juvenile Justice

June 21, 2016

Policy efforts related to juvenile justice grew out of the initial 2016 implementation of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration by the National Prevention Science Coalition. We worked with federal congressional offices to identify policymakers’ priorities related to crime prevention. As legislation relating to juvenile justice was being introduced (e.g., JJDPA), policymakers sought to summarize information about juvenile justice reform and reducing recidivism for justice-involved youth. In response to policymakers’ priorities, several briefs and research summaries were created by researchers participating in the RPC.

Alternatives to Incarcerating Low-Risk Offenders

  • A substantial number of children are detained or incarcerated for low-risk offenses, including status offenses that are crimes and misdemeanors that would not qualify as offenses if the offender was an adult (e.g., truancy, runaway).

  • Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the reauthorization of the JJDPA, which including language to phase out the Valid Court Order exception over the course of 3 years, which otherwise allows judges to order the detention of minors for status offenses.

  • Initially, researchers were asked to summarize research on community-based alternatives to the incarceration of youth. Research experts with the Research-to-Policy Collaboration noted there was a substantial amount of research documenting the deleterious impact of incarcerating youth who committed low-risk offenses, whereas community-based incarceration alternatives were more effective for improving public safety and were also more cost-effective.

  • Later, the inquiry involved into a request to formalize the summary into a policy brief as it related to pending legislation.

Healthcare Access for Justice-Involved Youth

  • Researchers in the RPC were asked about how access to healthcare may have implications for reducing the risk of recidivism for justice-involved youth.

  • Although many justice-involved youth are eligible for Medicaid, their Medicaid coverage is often terminated by state agencies upon confinement and youth are often not re-enrolled upon community re-entry.

  • Research suggests that the lapsing of medical coverage for justice-involved youth could be deleterious for their health and increase their risk of reoffending by delaying youths’ receipt of behavioral health treatments.

  • Representatives Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) and Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introduced a bill, At-Risk Youth Medicaid Protection Act (HB 4390), which would prevent states from terminating a youth’s Medicaid enrollment when they are detained.

  • In response to a request from a legislative aid,policy brief was created to summarize research regarding healthcare access for justice-involved youth.

Trauma and Mental Health

  • Many justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event (e.g., adverse childhood experiences) in their lives, such as having “seen someone severely injured or killed.”
  • Justice-involved youth could also experience trauma while confined, such as fearing for their safety or being placed in solitary confinement.

  • Experiencing traumatic events could impair the development of youths’ emotion regulation and cognitive functioning.

  • Moreover, having a history of trauma is also associated with mental health problems and substance abuse, both of which are common in justice-involved youth.

  • Researchers with the RPC summarized literature on trauma and the mental health of justice-involved youth to help Congressional offices better understand such experiences.

  • More information on trauma and adverse childhood experiences can be found at Child Trends.

Juvenile Brain Development

  • Research suggests that the brain is not fully developed until an individual reaches their mid-20s, indicating that adolescents’ brains are not as developed as adults’ brains.

  • In addition, the areas of the brain that are implicated in risk-taking behavior (e.g., areas that control emotion, judgement, and impulses) are often the last to fully develop.

  • Evidence from brain development research suggests a need to consider the brain development and cognitive maturity of justice-involved youth when deciding how they should be held accountable for their actions. For instance, rather than incarcerating some justice-involved youth, community-based alternatives to incarceration could be sought instead.

  • House Judiciary Committee staff sought consult to better understand the implications stemming from research regarding adolescent brain development.

  • Researchers engaged in the RPC summarized research and consulted with the staff to consider potential implications for judicial systems. Such consult from improving how problems are understood is consistent with conceptual research use, which could inform a wide variety of policy decisions as opposed to a specific piece of legislation.

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