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

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.