Prosecutors Speak on Juvenile Justice Reform

Posted March 2, 2017, By Liane Rozzell

The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has released a report that suggests possible common ground for collaboration between prosecutors and others working to reform juvenile justice policy and practice. New Prosecutorial Perspectives: A Framework for Effective Juvenile Justice summarizes interviews with prosecutors who “have advocated for or advanced innovative practices in juvenile prosecution.” While the Foundation does not endorse this report, we believe it suggests possible common ground for collaboration between prosecutors and others working to reform juvenile justice policy and practice. The report also offers useful insights into prosecutors’ concerns and opinions.

The prosecutors interviewed in the report agree on a number of key reform principles:

  • They held a “near-universal focus on rehabilitation” as a primary juvenile justice goal.
  • They acknowledged that youth are different from adults.
  • They expressed some concerns about the use of incarceration.

Illinois district Judge Benjamin Roe, a former prosecutor, told the researchers, “The number one priority must be rehabilitation — always. You almost always have more success treating kids in the community and not behind bars.”

The report underscores the prosecutors’ support for diversion programs, including restorative justice. It also highlights their concerns about the number of youth who get caught up in the juvenile justice system instead of receiving the services they need.

In November, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center at Georgetown University updated the association’s National Juvenile Prosecution Standards and corresponding Juvenile Prosecution Policy Positions and Guidelines. Many of the principles reflected in the New Prosecutorial Perspectives report also appear in these documents, including the need for juvenile prosecutors to have specialized training in topics such as adolescent development and the impact of childhood trauma. The policy guidelines also suggest that only prosecutors who really want to practice in juvenile court be assigned there. Both documents encourage prosecutors to play an influential role in delinquency prevention and early intervention efforts.

While both the New Prosecutorial Perspectives report and the standards and policy documents offer areas of common interest between juvenile justice reform efforts and prosecutors’ aims, they also point out areas of divergence. Since the TPPF report reflects the thoughts of a small group of prosecutors, it includes a number of opinions and statements that will give reformers pause. For example, one prosecutor commented that “consequences are especially important for youth who come from dysfunctional homes,” an outlook that runs the risk of baking in implicit biases and exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities in how youth are sanctioned. The Casey Foundation strongly supports policies and practices that eliminate disparities and the impact of implicit bias on justice-involved youth and their families.

Another disconnect revolves around charging youth as adults. This issue proved “divisive” for TPPF’s interviewees; one of them complains that laws that mandate charging youth in criminal court are “taking the decision out of our hands.” On the other hand, the policy guidelines strongly support prosecutors’ authority to directly transfer youth’s cases to criminal court. However, research informs and undergirds the basic premise of the juvenile justice system: Youth are very different from adults and require age-appropriate responses. This argues against trying youth as adults at all, let alone leaving the decision solely to the prosecutor.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. Our power is virtually boundless,” stated then-prosecutor Adam Foss in a TED talk last year. Foss said he has “learned the power of the prosecutor to change lives, instead of ruining them.” In that talk — and months later at a Foundation convening of JDAI deep-end sites — Foss challenged prosecutors to be innovators who help people rather than focusing primarily on convictions and incarceration. He cited compelling examples of young people who were given support instead of incarceration and successfully turned their lives around.

Foss is not alone in proclaiming that prosecutors have a crucial role in transforming juvenile justice.

As Adam Foss and these reports and guidelines demonstrate, prosecutors are not monolithic in their views and approaches. Despite sometimes serious differences of opinion with reformers, prosecutors can be — and some have been — allies in the work of transforming juvenile justice.