What The Research Tells Us

Effective System Improvement in Juvenile Justice

Why the perception that “nothing works” in juvenile justice?

In the 1970s and 80s, the prevailing perception was that “nothing works” in juvenile justice. This notion raised doubts about the effectiveness of rehabilitative practices and led to the rise of more punitive practices focusing on offense-based sentencing.

This perception stems from research, including the following examples.

  • Martinson concluded that “nothing works,” with which other researchers agreed as recently as 1989.
  • Hope was lost in models that used individualized rehabilitation plans as a means to reduce future system involvement.
Research Findings on Program Effectiveness

More recent research shows that programs and interventions are effective for certain groups of system-involved youth. Since the late 1990s, efforts like OJJDP’s comprehensive strategies for juvenile offenders, studies of evidence-based practices, and a push for program evaluation has led to a better understanding about what works in juvenile justice. Interventions effectiveness can be found within particular limits.

Empirical research findings suggest the following.

  • Programs are most effective when applied only to the youth at highest risk of re-arrests or re-offending. The same programs can cause negative effects when applied to youth at lower risk levels.
  • Low-risk youth should be diverted from the juvenile system. Research shows that low-risk, system-involved youth can suffer negative consequences.
  • Even the most effective programs show only modest results. For example, cognitive behavioral therapist may reduce re-offending from 40% to 30%.
  • Effectiveness is found only when services address needs pertaining to the offending and arrest.
  • Program effectiveness is even weaker for those who are incarcerated.
  • Correctional sanctions and placement in secure settings have been shows to increase recidivism.
Recommendation for effective system improvement

The growing knowledge base on program effectiveness indicates the existence of programs that work. Common themes and core elements of these effective programs have been identified. Effectiveness often is established by demonstrating better outcomes for system-involved youth enrolled in these programs compared to youth with similar system involvement who are not.

Empirical research findings suggest the following approaches:

  • Use valid assessments.
  • Focus resources and target interventions only to young people most likely to re-offend or be re-arrested.
  • Ensure effective interventions are implemented as intended.
  • Avoid wasting resources on interventions that do not work. Programs are sometimes assumed to be effective, but later are found to have the opposite effect (e.g. DARE operated for many years before people accepted the research demonstrating its ineffectiveness).
  • Reduce the use of corrective sanctions and placement in secure settings.
  • Serve youth in the community and focus on positive youth development (11).

What Happens When We Lock Kids Up?

Secure confinement causes all of the following:

Impaired Development

  • Problems in areas related to decision making and maturity.
  • Problems respecting the rights of others.
  • Problems conforming to laws
  • Problems functioning in educational and work environments.
  • Problems with maturity, impulse control, suppression of aggression, and responsibility.
  • Need for intense interventions.

Increased Offending

  • Increased arrests as juveniles
  • Increased adult criminal justice involvement
  • Reduced community safety

Long-Term Barriers and Costs

  • Less likely to complete high school
  • More likely to be incarcerated later in life
  • Problems functioning in group work environments
What do justice-involved youth need?

Community and Education

  • Return to family and community as soon as possible.
  • Positive youth development and evidence-based practices
  • Consistent, quality education
Who benefits?

We All Do

When youth people succeed, we all benefit. Taxpayers and government save money; communities are safer, families can remain intact; and young people have the chance to grow, succeed and contribute (12).