Each year, America’s juvenile courts handle approximately one million delinquency (juvenile justice) cases. Youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system face a myriad of troubling outcomes later in life—with higher rates of criminal justice system involvement and mental health and substance abuse problems, and poorer educational and occupational outcomes. An expanding portfolio of research—including on the tenets of youth development, the effectiveness of evidence-based programs and services, and the benefits of alternatives to incarceration—offers insights into how to best support this population while still maintaining public safety. Despite the availability of this research, there is often a large gap between research and practice in the juvenile justice system.
Child Trends conducted a study to expand the field’s understanding of how decision makers in juvenile justice settings, especially judges and attorneys, use research in their work. These practitioners have a unique opportunity to promote tools, programs, and interventions that have been shown to improve youth outcomes. Over the course of the study, we conducted interviews with 30 judges and 28 attorneys across the country, asking them how they define, acquire, interpret, and use research, and about the forces that shape their use of research.
Practitioners receive research findings frequently and in a variety of ways. Practitioners receive research through trainings, listservs, practitioner networks, professional development organizations, and from colleagues. In general, they rarely read peer-reviewed journals. Research also makes its way into the courtroom through risk assessments and expert testimony.
Practitioners like to ask questions and understand the implications of research. Practitioners particularly appreciate trainings because of the opportunity to ask questions and to probe presenters on how research can be relevant to their specific roles in the juvenile justice system. Practitioners need research to be written in a lay-friendly and clear manner, ideally with viable recommendations for improving practice and policy.
It can be difficult for practitioners to assess the quality of research. Practitioners noted that research study findings can sometimes conflict with each other, particularly in an adversarial legal setting when attorneys may use research to argue conflicting sides of a case. To assess quality, practitioners look at the reputations of organizations that produce and fund research, the characteristics of the study, whether it was peer-reviewed, and whether other practitioners in the field accept and use the research.
Practitioners are willing and eager to use research. Practitioners feel that research can inform decisions that will result in the best outcomes for youth and the greater community. They noted that exposure to research often results in moments of revelation that change the way they think about their cases. Practitioners also use research more directly to inform decisions—for example, through the use of risk assessments to inform detention decisions.
Research is only one tool in a practitioner’s decision-making toolbelt. Judges and attorneys consider many factors when making decisions, including legal research, state policies, the constraints of their individual roles, the availability of resources, and the interests of their clients.
Policies can be a barrier or a facilitator for practitioners’ use of research. Court rules or state law can put requirements in place that limit the use of research in decision making. For example, if a state mandates that a juvenile justice case move to adult court if the youth is over age 16, a judge will not have the discretion to keep the case in juvenile court (which is focused on rehabilitation). Additionally, if a community lacks the resources to implement evidence-based programs or services, practitioners cannot use these services to supplement or replace court sanctions such as probation or incarceration.
Practitioners want more research and greater access to researchers. Practitioners are eager to learn more about the youth on their caseloads, and how to support these youth while maintaining public safety. They mentioned a need for more data, a better understanding of how risk assessments work, and information on the effectiveness of interventions. Many practitioners were interested in partnering with researchers to establish research-practice partnerships.
Although these findings are exploratory (i.e., based on a small sample of respondents whose choice to participate suggests they may have a more positive perception of research), they can provide valuable insights to multiple audiences.
As the primary sources of research for practitioners, membership organizations for juvenile justice practitioners—along with state and local juvenile justice agencies and attorney coalitions—should do the following:
Given that state policies and budgets drive the structure and operation of juvenile justice systems, policymakers play a critical role in bridging research and practice. State policymakers should consider the following:
Researchers have been successful in generating a body of knowledge that can be used to improve juvenile justice systems. Although practitioners believe that research has helped enhance their decision making, they also feel that research could be more practical and tailored to meet their needs. Researchers interested in bridging the gap between research and practice in the juvenile justice system should consider the following:
This project was supported by Award No. #2015-R2-CX-0014, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.
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