Moving Forward: Utilizing a Developmental Model in the Juvenile Justice System

The developmental model of juvenile justice advocated by Scott and Steinberg (2008) identifies major guiding principles necessary for successful reform of the juvenile court and, listed with the concerns they are designed to address, are as follows: 1) the implementation of proportionate sentences with sufficiently narrow ranges in order to promote fairness and limit possible abuses due to bias as a result of broad judicial or prosecutorial discretion, 2) restrictive transfer rules that enable the juvenile court to maintain jurisdiction over the majority of adolescents in an effort to minimize the potential harm exposure to the criminal court poses on adolescent offenders' development, 3) the implementation of empirically supported treatment programs in conjunction with punitive sanctions that promote healthy development of youth in all jurisdictions, 4) intensive interventions in the lives of very young serious offenders to hopefully successfully intervene in the potential development of chronic, serious offenders, 5) and extended dispositional jurisdiction over youth entering the juvenile justice system at a later age in order to maintain fairness in sentencing as well as the application of proportionate punitive sanctions. The reforms suggested are not a drastic departure from the traditional juvenile court, but include significant changes in policy and procedure designed to remedy the shortcomings of its original implementation. At the same time, these guidelines are a significant departure from the recent focus on purely punitive sanctioning models prevalent in the contemporary juvenile justice system.

It should be noted that these proposed guidelines do present their own set of limitations. Some youth possess a history of antisocial behavior and do not fit within the normal pattern of adolescent offending that is driven by developmental influences (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). These youth may enter the justice system facing serious charges and may have a substantial criminal record by mid-adolescence; though such youth represent a very small percentage of youthful offenders, they pose a significant threat to public safety and do not fit the developmental model advocated thus far (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). Scott and Steinberg (2008) acknowledge that successful identification and intervention in the lives of these youth poses a daunting challenge, and the potential for disproportionate sentencing and excessive punishment is inherent in such interventions, especially if the same programs utilized are not available to all youth. While a single model for the juvenile court will not yield positive outcomes for all youth, the developmental model aims to provide a framework of stable, satisfactory responses to juvenile delinquency that promotes the social welfare of youth while holding adolescents accountable, although to a lesser degree than adults, for their actions.

The examination of the developmental model above raises an interesting question: in light of the shift to contemporary policies and practices in juvenile justice, are political leaders, practitioners, and the public willing to take a different approach to juvenile justice? Interestingly enough, many state legislatures are already moving toward more moderate policies as the high economic costs of recent reforms and the impact of harsher sanctions for such young offenders begin to be realized (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). Further, research by Scott and Steinberg (2008) shows that public attitudes toward juvenile justice are hardened immediately after a highly publicized offense, but soften and trend more toward rehabilitation after some time passes. In fact, surveys consistently indicate that the preferences of the public align more with the proposals presented by the developmental model presented than with the current, contemporary regime (Scott and Steinberg, 2008).

Support for the developmental model is further emphasized by recent news throughout the United States. On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, indicating a shift in viewing youthful felons from irredeemable predators to victims of circumstance that possess the potential for rehabilitation (Bronner, 2012). A report published in June 2013 identified nine states that previously incarcerated youth at high rates that have enacted policies that shift the majority of young offenders toward community interventions (Rosales, 2013). Some states have reversed changes that lowered the age at which youthful offenders were automatically transferred to the criminal court, including Connecticut, a state that once sent the highest number of juveniles to the adult court (Chen, 2010). Georgia legislators unanimously passed major reforms implementing new sentencing laws that keep non-violent drug and property offenders out of prison and directing them to intervention programs and graduated scales of punishment, and are looking to do something similar for the juvenile justice system (The Economist, 2013). Finally, in Illinois, the state most credit with the establishment of the juvenile court, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission published a report condemning the state youth prison system and finding that the majority of incarcerated young offenders would be better served in treatment or educational programs (NPR, 2012).

It is evident that the traditional model of the juvenile justice system was ineffective in dealing with the problem of adolescent crime. It is just as evident that the contemporary approach to punitive sanctions and incarceration has been ineffective in remedying the shortcomings of the traditional model. The developmental model advocated by Scott and Steinberg (2008) provides a framework to address the shortcomings of the traditional model with regards to accountability and responsibility of youthful offenders, while also promoting the social welfare of juveniles and basing sentencing and disposition on empirically supported treatments and interventions. Further supporting the work of Scott and Steinberg (2008), recent reforms and research on public preferences and perspectives align with the guidelines advocated by the developmental model of juvenile justice.


Scott, E., & Steinberg, L. (2008). Rethinking Juvenile Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronner, E. (2012, June 26). News Analysis - Ruling Reflects Rethinking on Juvenile Justice - Retrieved June 22, 2013, from

Chen, S. (2010, January 15). States rethink 'adult time for adult crime' - Retrieved June 22, 2013, from

The Economist (2013, February 2). Juvenile justice: Suffer the children | The Economist. Retrieved June 22, 2013, from

NPR (2012, April 18). Kids Behind Bars: Illinois Rethinks Juvenile Justice : NPR. Retrieved June 22, 2013, from

Rosalas, C. (2013, June 18). Report singles out 9 states, including Texas, for turnaround in adopting policies to reduce youth incarceration | Crime Blog. Retrieved June 22, 2013, from