Bridging the research-to-practice gap in juvenile justice

This essay has been simultaneously published in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Across the past decade, the juvenile justice community has been shifting its thinking from being “tough on crime” to being “smart on crime.” This change has been largely attributed to an enhanced understanding of both youth development and the effectiveness of interventions to reduce recidivism and promote positive outcomes for youth. In fact, in 2013 the National Research Council concluded that:

Evidence shows convincingly that reforming juvenile justice in accord with well-established principles of adolescent development can reduce offending and promote accountability while treating juvenile offenders fairly and serving their individual needs. There is no need to trade public safety for due process and individualized treatment.

Although progress has been made in incorporating more evidence-based practices, programs and policies into the juvenile justice system, the system still often operates in contradiction to available research. For example, research indicates that the incarceration of juvenile offenders, especially nonviolent offenders, is ineffective at reducing recidivism, and can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism.

This is because incarceration can negatively influence young people’s mental health, stunt their cognitive and social-emotional development, disrupt the development of healthy, pro-social relationships, and interfere with key developmental milestones (such as the completion of schooling and entrance into the workforce) that are essential for successful transition to adulthood. Despite this substantial body of research, on any given day, there are just over 54,000 youth incarcerated in residential facilities throughout the United States, the majority of whom (76 percent) are nonviolent offenders.

The disconnect between research and practice in the juvenile justice system is not only evidenced by incarceration rates of young offenders. Most juvenile justice decisions are not research-informed, few publicly funded systems use evidence-based programs, and it is rare for research-generated knowledge on youth development, such as principles of positive youth development, to inform the design and implementation of interventions for juvenile offenders.

While the gap between research and practice in the juvenile justice system is beyond dispute, the  solution remains unclear. One reason for this is the complexity of the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system is a multiorganizational system that includes all the individuals and organizations responsible for handling youth — from the time a youth is observed or reported to commit a delinquent act until follow-up and supervision of that youth has ended.

Accordingly, juvenile justice systems are comprised of a diverse set of individuals, including, but not limited to, police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court administrators, social workers, counselors and probation officers.

The complexity of this system is exacerbated by the fact that there is no single juvenile justice system in the United States. Juvenile justice systems operate based on state laws and local jurisdictions’ practices. For example, some state juvenile justice agencies fall under state child services agencies (such as the Department of Youth Services), while others fall under state corrections agencies.

Even the upper and lower age limits for the juvenile justice system vary state by state. Forty states either have no lower age limit set for the juvenile justice system or set it under age 10, and nine states set the upper age limit at 15 or 16. Beyond differences between states, juvenile justice systems can vary within states, especially in relation to resources available in rural versus urban communities.

The variability in the administration and implementation of juvenile justice systems has led some to argue that youth receive “justice by geography.” However, this same variability can be leveraged to study how different practices, programs and policies impact the development of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

One challenge to doing so is the availability and quality of data. Data issues persist across systems (child welfare, education, mental health) and within them. Beyond issues with privacy and confidentiality, data can be inadequate, incomplete or nonexistent.

For example, 11 states do not track recidivism rates for the youth in their system and one-quarter of states report that their capacity to collect and report juvenile recidivism data is “below average” or “weak.” This lack of data makes it difficult to identify what works, and limits states’ abilities to use data to make evidence-informed decisions about policies, practices and programs.

Despite these challenges, efforts to bridge the research-to-practice gap have been fruitful. For example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has sponsored numerous demonstration programs, offers extensive training and technical assistance, and operates a Model Programs Guide that contains information on evidence-based programs. Additionally, several organizations have developed specific criteria for, and lists of, evidence-based programs and approaches, including but not limited to the OJJDP-supported Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, the Office of Justice Programs’ website and Child Trend’s What Works database.

Other examples of successful efforts include evidence-based tools such as risk assessments developed to support effective decision-making in juvenile justice proceedings, and demonstration projects such as the Juvenile Justice Reform and Reinvestment Initiative, which is working to apply findings from a large meta-analysis of effective juvenile justice programs into practice.

There are also examples of jurisdictions around the country that have made efforts to translate research into practice, such as the Evidence-based Prevention and Intervention Support Center in Pennsylvania, which supports counties in implementing evidence-based programs. Another example is The Bridge Project, a collaboration between the Urban Institute and the OJJDP to develop research-to-practice resources to advance the understanding and application of research-based strategies in the juvenile justice system.

While these efforts have been successful, we have yet to fully bridge the gap between research and practice. One way forward is to leverage lessons learned from other systems that are working to promote the use of research. For example, a growing body of research indicates that engagement of key stakeholders is a key predictor of the use of research and that the success of evidence-based practices relies on the willingness of practitioners and policymakers to implement them.

Nevertheless, to date, only limited efforts have been made to engage key decision-makers on research use in the juvenile justice system. Additionally, implementation science tells us that implementing evidence-based programs requires assessing the “fit” of the program with the local context.

Therefore, we need strategies that encourage jurisdictions to implement evidence-based programs and select appropriate programs that align with their resources and needs. In support of these efforts, Child Trends, with support from  the National Institute of Justice, is exploring when and how judges and attorneys engage research in juvenile justice proceedings. We hope this research will provide valuable insight to inform policies and practices in the juvenile justice system.

Being “smart on crime” is more than a slogan — it’s a commitment to continually building the knowledge base in the field and leveraging the collective expertise of diverse stakeholders. But the effort is worth it if we want to build an equitable justice system that promotes safety and improves people’s lives.