The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Youth, Crime, and Punishment

The practice of treating juvenile offenders differently from adults began among social workers in Chicago more than a century ago. Now a new study concludes that social work has strayed too far from those beginnings, abandoning juvenile offenders to law enforcement and allowing punishment to replace rehabilitation.

In an article in the December 2013 Social Service Review, Laura Abrams, associate professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, says youths and their families would benefit if social workers became more engaged in juvenile justice, including efforts now underway to reform it. “The field is turning more therapeutic again,” Abrams says. “There’s more room for that. I think during 20 years of treating juveniles as adults, with no second chances, there wasn’t as much a place for social workers.”

“Juvenile Justice at a Crossroads: Science, Evidence and Twenty-First Century Reform” explores three major themes in juvenile justice history, starting with the etiology of juvenile delinquency. Progressive era reformers believed that because young people were different from adults, with weaker powers of reasoning and less control of their impulses, they could not be held responsible for crimes in the same way adults were. These early reformers took an ecological view of juvenile delinquency, looking for its causes in the surroundings of young offenders, including their families and neighborhoods. Among the prominent reformers of this era were SSA’s Sophonisba Breckenridge and Grace Abbott, authors of the 1912 book The Delinquent Child and the Home.

The influence of science and medicine transformed social work’s approach to juvenile delinquency, which came to be seen more as a flaw within the offender than in his or her surroundings. Doctors measured body size and birth weight, and later intelligence and personality, to look for predictors of delinquency. Psychiatry and psychology focused on individual make-up rather than on the influence of family and neighborhood.

Abrams also examines diversion programs, which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Springing from the belief that the juvenile justice system often did more harm than good, these alternatives to incarceration included community-based programs for low-level and first-time offenders. But critics argued that they didn’t work. Rather than keep youths out of the criminal justice system, they said, diversion programs only widened the net that drew them in. Such criticism helped pave the way for a more punitive approach to juvenile justice.

Emphasis has swung over the years between punishment and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation efforts have ranged from allowing offenders to do community service to sending them to military-style boot camps. In the 1980s, the pendulum swung hard toward punishment. Rising violent crime, increased use of street drugs like crack cocaine, and media coverage of urban gangs undermined sympathy for youthful defenders. New state and federal laws made it easier to try juveniles in adult court.

Today’s reformers are inspired in part by a concern for human rights. They say the juvenile justice system is failing to provide basic services for young offenders, including education and mental health care. They argue for alternatives to detention like restorative justice and work programs that keep young people in their communities.

Science has played a part in these debates. Recent neurological research, for example, has found evidence that juvenile brains are indeed different. But Abrams cautions against an uncritical application of science to questions of juvenile justice. She worries that research into brain structure and function may end up “pathologizing” youth offenders, that evidence-based practice is undermining traditional probation services, and that techniques licensed and sold by for-profit companies may not work well in real-life settings.

Social workers can steer the juvenile justice system toward more humane remedies, Abrams says. They can restore the ecological viewpoint, which research shows still matters, and advocate for ways of strengthening families, neighborhoods and schools. Social workers can also be leaders in the use and evaluation of evidence-based interventions for youth. Not least, they can call attention to racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

Abrams, Laura S. “Juvenile Justice at a Crossroads: Science, Evidence and Twenty- First Century Reform.” Social Service Review 87 (4): 725-752.