The struggle against juvenile crime may come down to one simple question: Do we want revenge, or do we want results?
If we want results, says Christopher Slobogin, the Milton Underwood Professor of Law at Vanderbilt, we should reform the system dramatically to stress community-based treatment over incarceration.
“The bottom line is, the research shows that if you’re interested in reducing recidivism, community-based treatment is far and away the best way to go,” Slobogin says. “That means fewer prisons, less incarceration, and more diversion to the community.”
Slobogin is co-author of the 2011 book Juveniles at Risk: A Plea for Preventive Justice with Mark R. Fondacaro, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. The book, published by Oxford University Press, proposes some radical-sounding ideas, among them that juvenile offenders should never be tried as adults or transferred to adult prisons. Incarceration of juveniles in general should only be a last-resort measure, Slobogin argues.
“We know it’s important to many people to make sure criminals receive the punishment they deserve, regardless of whether those criminals are dangerous,” says Slobogin. “But polls show that people care as much about public safety as they do about vengeance.”
Community-based treatment programs are far more effective than incarceration in reducing even violent future criminal behavior, he says, because they can take better aim at the family, peer, school and neighborhood risk factors that contribute to delinquent behavior.
Slobogin also notes that neurological research shows teenagers have undeveloped brains and less control of their impulses than adults. In some cases, society can simply “wait out” a juvenile criminal while he or she is being held in a juvenile facility until his or her brain matures.
The worst-case scenario happens when a juvenile commits a crime, is transferred to adult court, and is sentenced as an adult to an adult prison. The person who is eventually released from that system is sharply more likely to commit additional crimes than someone who was released back into the community and received treatment, says Slobogin.
“If juveniles are put in adult prisons, their developmental role models will be adult criminals, which is just about the worst possible way to handle the situation.”