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The Unspoken Tragedy of The Juvenile Justice System

Updated on January 31, 2014

The Semantics Of Juvenile Justice

People on average are only exposed to the realm of juvenile justice when an event involving youthful offenders attains national headline status and which quite understandably sparks negative sentiments. The subsequent disposition of the vast majority of young offenders, however, is only articulated to the extent that the court system imposes custodial confinement to the state’s juvenile justice system. What that sort of confinement actually represents to the offender, their parent(s) or guardian and the public at large is oftentimes very disparate.

There is an abject element of juvenile justice which exists simply because it is trapped by constant opposing views about justice for youthful offenders and how it should be carried out. What is even less obvious, yet more critical, is that the actual composition of children being inducted into the juvenile justice system is unwittingly responsible for much of the disparity in views. In order to fully appreciate the circumstances, it is necessary to step away for a moment to highlight some basic facts that are highly influential.


Wandering Application Of A Definition

As adults, we very naturally hold children and adolescents within the protective confines of innocence for as long as practical, likewise restricting them to reasonable expectations and boundaries. For the most part the average child or teenage adolescent reasonably meets expectations and adheres to boundaries, a trait that we characterize as prosocial. On occasion, however, actions on their part rise to the level that intervention from outside the home becomes necessary and construed as either at-risk or delinquent, depending upon the circumstances.

The youth services network and juvenile justice system naturally have definitions of what an at-risk child or youthful offender comprises. The problem is imposing the definition in a universal fashion wherein children fit the model based upon variable interpretation, a premise that is itself seldom examined. Indeed, it is the classification of these children by subjective comparison to a set of standards that summarily brands them as either at-risk or offenders. Therein lies the rub and where the destiny for some of these children becomes blurred.

At no other stage in life is an individual’s behavior and actions influenced by so many factors as during young adolescence and teenage years. Parental continuity, environmental conditions, academic and peer pressures are all compounded by certain genetic predispositions and developmental changes in physiology. As most parents will agree, the collective influence by such factors can bring about both the best and worst memories of child rearing. But what about the young adolescents and teens themselves? If parents as adults experience difficulty in accurately assessing and navigating these waters, then how can a child of lesser experience and developmental skills be expected to do as well or better at deciphering appropriate life decisions? In other words, what portion of a child’s actions are due to characterizations of delinquency as opposed to actions merely associated with normal patterns of development? The answer, as defined by the people making such decisions, would surprise and shock you.


Design Intervention

There is a broader, unseen, consideration that shifts the matter directly into the darker spaces of juvenile justice and at-risk youth programs. Most juvenile justice and at-risk programs are designed in a manner to merely deal with the problem rather than work to resolve it. The reasons why will be discussed in a moment, but if the statistics of any state’s juvenile justice network are examined more critically, the overall numbers of children served are relatively static and movement in either direction can often be attributed to recidivism rates, changes in state census, national crime averages and matriculation by youths to adult status. That is, accounting for all other factors, the number of children inducted into the system and the various “treatment” they undergo in any given state remains somewhat consistent. How is it possible that a system designed to correct a problem merely holds it steady year after year?

Does it infer that the circumstances are impervious to change or improvement and if so, then does it naturally follow that the design and efforts of youth service programs are ineffectual in successfully treating and diminishing the presence of at-risk children and youthful offenders? Indeed, if the annual progress reports by these agencies are examined, they very ironically and invariably cite successful intervention statistics. If so, then why does a relatively equal population of such children continue to exist year after year? The true answer, while astounding if not outright revolting, is simple. The children in question constitute an unwitting commodity in a system of finance. Moreover, it is the peculiar characteristics of such finance that defines these children in such a manner and constitutes the greatest factor responsible for holding their numbers at particular levels.

The design of most state youth service systems is one balanced to various proportions between state-run programs and private contracted agencies. The private agencies are awarded state contracts and granted reimbursement to perform a variety of services as prescribed by the state. Each budget cycle, state agencies submit their budgets as part of the administration’s overall package for review and approval by the state legislature. WIthin this process is a key element that represents one of the driving forces of the problem. If an agency changes its conditions such that it needs less funding, those funds are consequently removed from the budget. This resolution equates to less money for service provisions for both state-run and private contracted organizations. Naturally, this should be the case if an agency was indeed performing successful programs that both targeted and reduced at-risk circumstances and youthful offenders. In other words, greater success means less children that need to be served. Yet how can the agency produce documented reports indicating success while the numbers of children and money needed to treat them remain the same or higher? It's a glaring contradiction to cite overwhelming success in these programs and yet see the same level of children come and go each year. The fact that the numbers do indeed remain generally consistent speaks to a matter apart from juvenile justice itself.

Regardless of whether youth services organization exists as a state-operated, for-profit or non-profit program, there are factors that naturally impose expansion or growth. Cost of inflation, organizational changes and upward mobility of staff are but some of the reasons that impart pressure to seek same-level or increased funding. In other words, youth service programs are influenced by the very same characteristics as any other entity that operates as a business.

A critical difference, however, is how the these particular state and private contracted youth service agencies are reimbursed. Both federal and state guidelines create reimbursement that is based upon units of service delivered to each specific child, much like the insurance industry guides its reimbursement schedules. Said another way, the money follows the child. There is a standing perception that this is the most economical and beneficial way to ensure that these children obtain the services that they reportedly need. The other side of the coin is that the children become the very force which drives the entire financial costs of doing business.

In order for any youth services organization to obtain reimbursement for staffing, raises, capital expenses, food, clothing, program materials, etc., they must have a minimum number of children to meet the demand. In other words, to maintain a stable budget, they must be able to induct a certain number of children into the system. So how can it be that a program whose mission is to diminish juvenile delinquency be financially designed in such a manner as to require the very factor it is obligated to reduce? In order for these organizations to exist as businesses and provide jobs, salaries or other contributions, they must have delinquent children in certain quantities to meet such obligations.


Which Way Is Up?

If a youth services agency is truly successful in treating the children it serves, then it should very naturally follow that some degree of reduction is observed in the need for services and yet each year, the inflow of new children nearly matches those outgoing. Furthermore, such agencies would idealistically target a reduction in the deeper levels of the system where the worst youthful offenders reside because services to these children are more costly per-diem. Consequently, if those same dollars could be redistributed to the front of the system where at-risk children are, then efforts there should likewise see a reduction due to increased money and service availability. Yet nothing of this sort actually takes place at all. It doesn’t take place because if you need less treatment services at the deeper end of the system, the workers involved would be faced with unemployment. These workers are more strictly trained to deal with tough kids, so attempting to redeploy them at the front end where children are not so hardened creates two problems; the workers nevertheless tend to treat less delinquent children in a harsher manner and secondly, these workers lack the specific skills necessary to discourage delinquent behavior. In essence, it would constitute a poor business model, much like redeploying security guards to perform mental health services.

If you need the presence of children to obtain certain reimbursement levels in order to maintain organizational and financial stability, then the impetus to actually recruit at-risk children begins to manifest. The behaviors of children subsequently become subject to interpretation by agencies who define and provide services. It is an unspoken practice within the entire juvenile justice system to cleverly interpret behavior of many children as at-risk or delinquent in order to maintain the balance of businesses supported by it.

The conditions under which the agency’s reimbursement methods are carried out unwittingly mandate the number of children necessary to meet annualized budgets and by their own hand, generate progress reports which both justify and protect their funding. These same reports paradoxically raise ominous questions, some of which have been highlighted or discussed in this article.

None of these revelations is of particular concern unless one of your children happens to be inducted into the system in your state. Critics of anyone who would suggest a premise exists largely come from the treatment community, whose members very emotionally rebuff such a claim. They typically cite instances of doing “great things” with the children they serve. While doing great work is indeed admirable, it doesn’t necessarily equate with doing what is unswervingly right in the interest of all children.

It is also of significance that certain people are drawn to careers involving treatment and care of at-risk children and youthful offenders. Many come from troubled families themselves, producing what is known as the wounded-healer model of treatment. Others are merely driven by a passion for working with children. In either case, approaches to treatment tend to be more emotionally driven rather than by logistics. In other words, while these people often constitute the most suited to working with children, their invaluable contributions do little in the way of stemming the problems being discussed.

To add to the problem, when children who aren't actually at-risk or delinquent get inducted to simply get the numbers up, it exposes them to children who are either at risk or delinquent. As every parent can testify to the natural patterns of development that all children share, it is a foregone conclusion that the entirely prosocial children will come under the influence of those who are delinquent in one respect or another. To clarify, it's not a premise where an entirely pro-social and well-behaved child is suddenly kidnapped and swept up into the youth services system. Rather, it is children who despite actions that are consistent with normal patterns of development and boundary testing are nevertheless being construed as at-risk or delinquent as the need arises. In other words, depending upon the census regarding children in the system as a financial measurement, a child's behavior could be construed as either normal or delinquent.

Furthermore, a very unique twist is added when entirely prosocial children are inducted into the program. They very naturally perform to the highest standards in the program they are subsequently deemed to be a success story in having transformed a potentially delinquent child. Children who never should have been in the system in the first place are used to represent the enormous positive impact that youth services has on its target population. It is an organization established nearly exclusively by unwitting deception.

By the forces described throughout this article, it is also the induction of the children into an environment consequently incapable of studying and improving upon its programs because good kids are mixed with bad ones all in the name of maintaining program stability. It would be impossible to conduct meaningful research upon a population not purely defined as delinquent and therefore, impossible to use that research to create better programs capable of actually reducing juvenile delinquency. Again, it's not a system capable of actually performing in a manner consistent with its true objective.

Are the truly dangerous kids being captured by the system? In most cases the answer is yes, but it occurs more commonly because the actions of such children are quite graphic. These children are typically committed to state youth services custody by a court, often subsequent to arrest by law enforcement for criminal acts. When we read about kids who kill, who go on a murder spree, there are always experts who come out of the woodwork for a time to call the horse after the race. They write books that suggest violent video games or detrimental environments to be the cause. By sheer virtue of repeated acts that are similar in nature, we’re no closer to understanding the actual cause than before. This is extremely relevant to the matter under discussion because it is the responsibility of every state’s youth services agency to conduct useful research into juvenile delinquency patterns to try and better our understanding of the cause. In order to accurately establish and conduct such research, great care must be taken to maintain the purest sample of true at-risk and delinquent children to avoid confounds or factors capable of tainting the results or outcome of such research.


What About The Problem Of Delinquency In Your Own State?

See results

Both Ends Toward The Middle; A Winning Combination

If we’re to see any measure of true reduction in delinquent children, if we're to better understand its nature and provide truly successful services, then a change in policy needs to be examined. If we wish to see youth service systems that move beyond the ability to simply deal with the problem, then we need to restructure the method by which these agencies provide reimbursement for services rendered so that it doesn't jeopardize the business aspects of youth services organizations.

While per-diem rates directly linked to each child are a well-recognized component of many contracted service agencies, we should consider alternatives in order to avoid the pitfalls that transform them into a commodity. Ideally, youth services programs should grow smaller and needs less funding as a result of methods that truly work to reduce delinquency. As it stands, youth service organizations are nothing more than an element of big business in some instances and regardless of whether characterized as non-profit or not, these companies presently require a definitive number of children to maintain their budgets.

On the surface, youth services agencies constitute a moral and social obligation that we all want to believe in as doing the right thing. The people who collectively work with these children do indeed have their heart in the right place and work diligently in an environment that is largely thankless, sometimes even laden with risk of harm. Although it is not apparent by general tone of the discussion here, there is much appreciation for the collective workforce who dedicate their lives to working with these children. Unfortunately, accolades must not in any way suppress the deleterious aspects of youth services agencies in both design, application and results.

While some degree of youth services will always be necessary, only by giving attention to the means by which we choose to structure these agencies will it remain most effective. Change only comes about by the efforts to openly discuss the problem and seek resolutions that represent best practices while protecting the welfare of the population being served.

The opinions and perspectives expressed here are strictly those of the author and any similarity of content or assertions regarding any particular person, agency or organization are purely coincidental.

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