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Juvenile Justice: Finding Solutions That Work

In my hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D., a new initiative is under way allowing juveniles charged with a first-time misdemeanor to appear before a jury of other teens who will determine their sentence. Upon reading the proposal, I confess that my first reaction was disbelief. At best it sounded like a solution looking for a problem. At worst, it was a bit like inviting the mice to guard the cheese.

Deeper digging, however, revealed a different picture. There are good reasons to keep juveniles out of our current justice system and to find alternative means for responding to young offenders.

Partly in response to high profile events like Columbine and its predecessors, virtually every state in the union has implemented measures seeking to curb a perceived crime wave among American youth. Defended with slogans like “getting tough,” “zero-tolerance” and “adult time for adult crime,” states have made it easier for juvenile offenders to be transferred into courts designed for adults. Many states have increased penalties for juvenile crimes, or included juvenile convictions in “three strikes and you’re out” laws. Even some alternative programs like “teen boot camps” major on authority and severe discipline as the key to resolving the problem of teen crime.

Recent research, however, demonstrates that such programs are not only extremely expensive, but are failing in their effectiveness. The 2000 research project “Less Hype, More Help” (www.aypf.org), written by Richard Mendel and published by the American Youth Policy Forum, argues persuasively that trying juveniles in adult courts is a counterproductive fad that actually exacerbates juvenile crime.

In Minnesota, for example, 58 percent of juveniles transferred to an adult court were found to commit another crime within two years, in comparison to the 42 percent among those retained by the juvenile courts. A similar study of 2,700 offenders in Florida found a 30 percent re-arrest rate for juveniles in adult court versus 19 percent for those in juvenile court.

Swift and severe punishment, as a response to teen crime, seems to be receiving the most popular support. Yet from the perspective of those incarcerated, “get tough” programs often seem more like a reign of terror. Frequently these programs don’t build character or deter recidivism, but actually encourage the same patterns of violent behavior that led to conflict with the law in the first place.

The good news is that less expensive strategies of community involvement are proving to be effective alternatives to incarceration and transfer to adult courts. One such alternative is the “teen court” strategy in Sioux Falls and other cities around the country.

Teen courts provide first-time juvenile offenders with a jury of their peers (literally!) empowered to pass a sentence. Teenagers also fill the roles of attorneys, bailiffs and clerks. Only the presiding judge is an adult (and an attorney). Sentences typically take the form of community service or counseling, but may also include creative requirements such as a letter of apology or an essay on an assigned topic.

The teen court program is tightly regulated. According to Bonnie Costain, the states attorney in Sioux Falls who oversees the program, teens must first be approved before they are diverted from the conventional juvenile justice system to the teen court. The teen must also agree to plead guilty and must agree to serve on the jury in a future case when asked. Numerous community groups are involved in the court’s operation including area schools and organizations like the Boy Scouts.

The teen court concept is still in its infancy, but already the indications are that the re-arrest rate among its defendants is exceptionally low. One explanation is that the system exposes the teens to as many community and authority members as possible and actually involves them in community action. The re-orientation to new and positive relationships offers the possibility of a more constructive pattern of life. Also, the simple fact that teens are sheltered from the harsh realities of adult court or more traditional juvenile treatment plans may be contributing to its success.

Churches can be involved in teen courts and other programs designed to redirect troubled youth away from the justice system and into lives of hope. Some congregations have developed programs designed to assist juveniles sentenced to community service, providing transportation, supervision and sometimes the projects themselves. Other congregations have developed mentoring programs or have provided spiritual retreats for youths housed in detention centers. The key is communication between church leaders and community leaders connected with juvenile justice. The possibilities are endless.

Congregations that take Jesus’ teachings seriously will have every reason to reach out to juvenile offenders. Christ teaches us to be agents of reconciliation and healing—to visit those in prison, and to care for the vulnerable and weak among us. Children held a special place in Jesus’ ministry, as they should in the church’s ministry today.

Teen courts are just one opportunity for congregations concerned about youth in their community. But the larger mandate of long-term commitment to youth is an inescapable part of every church’s ministry.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mk 10:14).

Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.