Pediatric Organization Calls for Juvenile Justice Reforms

Posted April 19, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Black doctor with tablet talks with young teen.

A new resource looks at the preva­lence of trau­ma among youth in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem and out­lines ways to pro­tect their men­tal and emo­tion­al well-being. The fact sheet, pro­duced by the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics (AAP), is part of a grow­ing call from child and ado­les­cent health experts to reform long­stand­ing juve­nile jus­tice poli­cies and practices.

Efforts aimed at improv­ing our juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem must extend beyond issues relat­ed to youth arrest and deten­tion and con­sid­er the com­pre­hen­sive needs of chil­dren and ado­les­cents who are among the most mar­gin­al­ized in our soci­ety,” says Mikah Owen, a pedi­a­tri­cian and AAP mem­ber. These young peo­ple are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence child­hood trau­ma and have unmet med­ical, men­tal health, behav­ioral and psy­choso­cial needs.” 

Read how ado­les­cent brain sci­ence can inform juve­nile jus­tice reforms 

Owen’s advice echoes a grow­ing body of research that cap­tures — and defines — the long­stand­ing impact of trau­mat­ic child­hood expe­ri­ences and the sci­ence of ado­les­cent brain devel­op­ment. More than half of all jus­tice-involved youth have expe­ri­enced domes­tic vio­lence, trau­mat­ic loss or bereave­ment, accord­ing to the AAP, which is a grantee of the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and the nation’s flag­ship pedi­atric organization.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cur­rent juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem can and does inflict fur­ther trau­ma on these young peo­ple — includ­ing through the use of iso­la­tion and soli­tary con­fine­ment, which are too often used to con­trol or pun­ish,” the fact sheet says.

Pedi­a­tri­cians under­stand that jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment — and the child­hood adver­si­ty that often pre­cedes it — can derail young people’s chances for healthy devel­op­ment,” says Liane Rozzell, a senior pol­i­cy asso­ciate with the Casey Foundation.

Cre­at­ing an Age-Appro­pri­ate Juve­nile Jus­tice System 

Our patients can­not vote and can­not speak up for them­selves, so pedi­a­tri­cians are unique­ly posi­tioned to stand with them as advo­cates,” Owen explains.

To this end, AAP rec­om­mends the fol­low­ing juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem reforms:

  • Advance poli­cies and com­mu­ni­ty action to address the root caus­es of juve­nile jus­tice involve­ment, includ­ing sys­temic racial dis­par­i­ties as well as unad­dressed men­tal health, med­ical and legal needs. 
  • Ensure that incar­cer­a­tion for chil­dren and young peo­ple is used only as a last resort, which means after diver­sion and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty-based inter­ven­tions have been deployed.
  • Abol­ish exces­sive­ly puni­tive and devel­op­men­tal­ly inap­pro­pri­ate prac­tices that serve to fur­ther trau­ma­tize children. The group cit­ed iso­la­tion, soli­tary con­fine­ment and sen­tences of life with­out parole as par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh prac­tices that should be aban­doned in favor of approach­es that bet­ter sup­port the devel­op­men­tal needs of young people.

Estab­lish­ing a Uni­ver­sal Min­i­mum Age

Sev­en ado­les­cent health pro­fes­sion­al groups — includ­ing the AAP — have joint­ly called for estab­lish­ing a min­i­mum age for juve­nile jus­tice involve­ment and the use of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence, moral­i­ty and com­mon sense” when doing so. The orga­ni­za­tions, which rec­om­mend a min­i­mum age of at least 12, are:

  1. Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Child and Ado­les­cent Psychiatry
  2. Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pediatrics
  3. Amer­i­can Coun­cil for School Social Work
  4. Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Association
  5. Clin­i­cal Social Work Association
  6. Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Social Workers
  7. Soci­ety for Ado­les­cent Health and Medicine 

The Unit­ed States remains one of the only coun­tries with­out a nation­al­ly man­dat­ed stan­dard for juve­nile pros­e­cu­tion. Few­er than half of all states have set a min­i­mum age thresh­old for try­ing chil­dren in juve­nile courts. Where age min­i­mums exist, they range wide­ly — from 6 to 12 years old. By com­par­i­son: Most coun­tries have set 14 as the min­i­mum age, accord­ing to the Nation­al Juve­nile Jus­tice Net­work.

Learn about ele­vat­ing care for youth in custody

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