Court Reform in the Juvenile Justice System

Over 100 years ago, Chicago led the way in establishing separate courts for young people who committed crimes. These Juvenile Courts, soon in operation in every state, had two interrelated aims:  The first was to separate adolescent offenders from adult criminals. The second aim was to help young offenders to grow up to become law-abiding citizens.

In recent years, we have learned a great deal from psychologists and neuroscientists about how young people develop and what affects that development, and that knowledge has increasingly been reflected in law and practice within the juvenile justice system.

These insights have not, however, been brought to bear on the court process itself. Even in courtrooms filled with conscientious professionals, the juvenile court process conveys a disregard for young people and prevents their meaningful engagement in a process purportedly designed to address their needs. We should be particularly concerned about the effect of this experience on minority youth (the vast majority of young people in the juvenile justice system, particularly in large urban areas) because this court experience reinforces, in developmentally destructive ways, their overall perception of the system’s unfairness and its bias against them.

The goal of this initiative is to develop, implement, and evaluate a pilot court process designed to enhance the developmental value (and minimize the developmental harm) of young people’s experience of the juvenile court process.

This initiative is supported by the Kanter Family Foundation and is led by Professor Emily Buss.