Juvenile Justice Reforms Went Backwards in the ’90s

By: Judge Steven Teske

Building a juvenile justice system that works is like a jigsaw puzzle, it takes time to put it together.

Most folks begin a puzzle putting together the frame using the corner and edge pieces. The creation of juvenile courts beginning in 1899 followed by the In re Gault decision in 1966 are the corner and edge pieces of our juvenile justice puzzle. Together these events created the framework for us to find the remaining pieces.

This framework established a system unique for kids, separating them from adults and providing them the basic rights to ensure a process due them when accused of a crime.

We can exhale a sigh of relief that we have found the pieces that frame our puzzle, but there remain hundreds of pieces to connect. These remaining pieces would create a picture of what works to prevent and treat delinquency, but putting together this puzzle is hit and miss, often frustrating. The more we keep at it, the more pieces we connect and the easier it gets with the fewer pieces remaining.

I am convinced that we have reached that point in our juvenile justice puzzle that we know what the picture will look like, but we still struggle to find those pieces that fit.

When juvenile crimes spiked in the ’90s and folks like Professor John Dilulio predicted a wave of “superpredator” kids, we saw a “get tough” approach. When that prediction didn’t come true, we were stuck with laws that treated kids more like adults, which made matters worse.

Once bad laws are passed, they’re not so easy to repeal. Just like stupid, you can’t fix bad or at least not right away.

Timing can be everything. It’s either good or bad timing, and for juvenile justice it was bad timing. Just after most of these harsh laws were passed, medical research was published that proved what the behavioral sciences had been saying all along — the teenage brain is neurologically wired to do stupid things.

Although I am not so sure the adolescent brain research would have prevented the onslaught of laws that adultified kids, given the sensational headlines of the “superpredator” scare, I do know that if we knew then what we would discover a few years later, it would have made for some very controversial discussion.

But the sensational headlines proved to be just that — sensational.

Juvenile crimes were already on the decline before many of these harsh laws were passed, and have continued to decline over the years, but the sensationalism of the “superpredator” scare proved too much to overcome.

Kids became the victim of a phenomena I call the “politics of fear,” or when people, mostly politicians, incite fear in the general public to achieve a political, social or other goal using emotional bias. This is most often achieved by subjective and sensational comments that play on the biases of the public. Although Professor Dilulio later confessed that his “superpredator” predictions were wrong, it wasn’t enough to stop politicians from stirring up the masses to pass tough laws.

The truth is always stretched or ignored when fear is the weapon of choice in the effort to change laws, and the adultification of kids in the nineties was no exception. Not only did elected officials ignore the downward trend in juvenile crime, they touted these tougher laws as “reforms.”

They successfully lowered the age of adult criminal liability, and made it easier to transfer kids to adult court. States also passed “automatic transfer laws,” which sent kids accused of violent felonies straight to adult court.

By 1995, 21 states had automatic transfer laws and by 2003 31 states.

Reform, by definition, is the “improvement of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory,” but studies on these tougher laws showed they didn't improve the system. Instead, they made it “wrong, corrupt, and unsatisfactory.”

These studies found higher recidivism rates for juveniles convicted in criminal court than for similar offenders adjudicated in juvenile courts.

I took the bench in 1999, in the thick of this. It was a déjà vu feeling to watch kids sitting in adult court among the adult defendants and being treated as adults. This horrifying sight is what motivated the child advocates to create the first juvenile court to separate kids from adults in the first place, and today we are seeing child advocates rise up again to rally around the juvenile court.

Today's trends are a response to the sensational “superpredator” stories of the ’90s, and these advocates have seized the adolescent brain science to reverse the adultification of kids.

Those ignorant of the studies or apathetic about best practices have tried to force the “get tough” pieces to fit, even masking them as reforms, but regardless of how hard they try, they simply don’t fit.

More folks than ever are recognizing that the remaining pieces of the puzzle reflect evidence-informed community-based programs, and not the brick and mortar facades of rehabilitation we facetiously called “training schools” and “youth development campuses.” The weighty evidence of the adolescent brain research makes it clear that if the prefrontal lobe cortex of our brains that translates emotion into logic is not developed until age 25, there is something wrong, even abusive, with punishing kids as if their brains were developed.

Today’s trends in juvenile justice give us hope that maybe, just maybe, we are getting closer to connecting the remaining pieces because our attitudes toward kids are changing.

When attitudes change, how we see those missing pieces also changes.

And when that occurs, the puzzle begins to come together.

This piece originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.