Balancing Individualized Treatment with Legislative Restrictions in the JJS

Balancing individualized, offender-based treatments with the need for consistency and proportionate sanctions has been a subject of ongoing debate and criticism regarding the juvenile court. In an effort to maintain balance between these two goals, sentencing guidelines and systems of graduated sanctions with targeted treatment have been enacted within the juvenile justice system in various jurisdictions. The question still remains, however, of whether these approaches help maintain the aforementioned balance, and at what expense?

Many states have enacted guidelines for graduated sanctioning systems, modeled to a considerable extent on the Comprehensive Strategy released by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to provide offense-based, tiered levels of increasingly stricter sanctions while also suggesting rehabilitative strategies where appropriate, in an effort to maintain individualized sanctioning of youthful offenders and to emphasize the need for, and use of, risk and needs assessments (Mears, 2002). In similar fashion, and to a large extent the same mentality behind the development of the Comprehensive Strategy, graduated sanctions and incentives are key components of many intervention programs (Kurlychek, 1999).

In conjunction with the aforementioned guidelines, sentencing guides also play a major role in the determination of treatment for youth adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile court. These guides aim to provide consistent and proportionate sanctions against offenders brought before the juvenile court in an effort to reduce or eliminate the potential for abuse of the discretionary authority of juvenile court judges, especially in light of research indicating that the court could be used to provide a form of social control over various targeted populations (Mears, 2002). According to Mears (2002), these guidelines are voluntary in some states, are mandatory in others, and in some states incentives are provided to promote use of the guidelines.

Taken together, sentencing guidelines and the implementation of graduated sanctions that include targeted treatment could provide a framework that assists the juvenile justice system in maintaining balance between individualized treatment and sanctioning, consistency and proportionality in sentencing, and balancing the community needs for retribution, incapacitation of serious and chronic offenders, and specific and general deterrence. However, this balance is not evident in practice with current sentencing guidelines. Most state guideline systems utilize offense-based criteria for the determination of sanctions to be applied, and the priority often shifts from addressing the needs of the offender to punitive sanctions (Mears, 2002). In fact, with sentencing guidelines in many jurisdictions, prosecutors become the determiner of whether and how to file charges, and often that discretion is coupled with legislative action in jurisdictions that impose automatic sanctions for specific offenses (Mears, 2002). This shift in discretion to prosecutors effectively eliminates the ability of the juvenile court to balance the needs of the offender, the circumstances surrounding the offense, and potential risk of re-offending when sentencing occurs.

As evident in the information provided, sanctioning guidelines are not effective in providing balanced, individualized sanctions for youthful offenders, though they do provide consistency in sanctioning within jurisdictions. A system of graduated sanctions that is coupled with targeted treatment for youthful offenders, however, is both recommended and empirically supported as a response for the treatment of juvenile offenders according to Kurlychek (1999), and as noted by the research-based, data-driven, and outcome-focused approach and success of the comprehensive strategy developed by the OJJDP (Howell, 2003). Utilizing these two systems together, and providing some discretion to the juvenile court during disposition of a case in order to lessen automatic sanctions against first time offenders or those unlikely to re-offend, creates a framework that can be applied across jurisdictions without irrevocably negatively impacting the life course of those offenders found to be less culpable during the time within which they are subject to the authority of the juvenile court.

It should also be noted, however, that reliance solely on systems of graduated sanctions is not a perfect approach. While considerable progress has been made in the identification of major risk factors that lead to delinquent behavior (and therefore influence the nature and focus of recommendations for the rehabilitative components found within systems of graduated sanctions and targeted treatments) much of the research on protective factors, as well as longitudinal studies that will provide more accurate information about the causes of delinquency than cross-sectional studies to date, is still in its infancy (Howell, 2003). With additional research and study, these components can be added to risk and needs assessment tools to further enhance and modify guidelines for use by the juvenile justice system in promoting effectively balanced, consistent, and proportionate sentencing of youthful offenders that encompasses each of the goals of the juvenile court while maintaining the rehabilitative and targeted, individualized treatment component.


Howell, J.C. (2003). Diffusing research into practice using the comprehensive strategy for serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders. Youth Violence & Juvenile Justice 1: 219-245.

Kurlychek, M., Torbet, P., & Boznyski, M. (1999). Focus on Accountability: Best Practices for Juvenile Court and Probation. U.S Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington DC.

Mears, D. (2002). Sentencing guidelines and transformation of juvenile justice in the 21st century. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 18: 6-19.