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Review: Nothing About Us Without Us! The Failure of the Modern Juvenile Justice System and a Call for Community-Based Justice

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Smith, Charisa Esq. (2013). “Nothing About Us Without Us! The Failure of the Modern Juvenile Justice System and a Call for Community-Based Justice,” The Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 11.Available at: http://digitalcommons.library.tmc.edu/childrenatrisk/vol4/iss1/11.


The current juvenile justice system is failing our youth. Juvenile courts were established to treat youth offenders by re-fastening their moral character and giving them new chances; today, the system is all about punishment. The current system increases recidivism, is wrought with racial disparities, operated without cultural competency, violates human rights laws, and fails to empower or reform. Rather than punishment, community-based approaches should be used to capitalize on the strengths and assets inherent in the communities of young offenders that will reduce crime, cost less, and be more socially responsible.

What is a Community-Based Approach to Juvenile Justice?

  • Empowerment of communities and youth who grapple with mass over-incarceration, poverty, violence, under-performing schools, a lack of mental health and health care services, and lack of overall opportunities;
  • Cultural competence that merges the legal and linguistic elements;
  • Support for the formation of social bonds;
  • Support from the private and public sectors;
  • Holding law enforcement accountable;
  • Having a foundation and accountability system rooted in human rights laws and norms.


Current problems in the juvenile justice system stem from the first interactions between youth and the police. Some of these interactions result in nothing, but for youth of color especially, these interactions bring about harmful consequences for even the smallest actions. Arrests are occurring at an alarming rate nationwide, but a very small percentage of young people—even those living in high crime areas—are involved in serious criminal activity.

Policies are spurring this high arrest rate. Punitive zero tolerance policies allow youths to be arrested in schools for a tough-on-crime approach. However, after 20 years of zero tolerance implementation, these policies do not keep children or communities safer. Zero-tolerance policy, which causes students to be expelled from schools and arrested, actually predicts high future rates of misbehavior, law-breaking, suspension, and school dropouts and delayed graduation.


Once juveniles reach the legal system, they encounter further challenges that can affect their lives long term. Once on trial, juvenile offenders may be faced with a public defender or a privately defense attorney that encourages them to plead or does not fight hard enough for them. Juveniles, especially those of color, face biases from both the judge and prosecutors who have discretion in the handling of their cases. Research has found that for the intersectionality of young offenders with other child-serving systems shows that the greater the permitted discretion, “the more likelihood that youth of color will be treated more negatively than their White counterparts.” When encountering decision-makers that lack personal familiarity with the culture of the juveniles and their communities, it leads to racial injustice and serious misconceptions.


The United States is home to the largest prison system in the world, but data continually shows that ineffectiveness of incarceration in diminishing youth crime. Youth detention is the harshest punishment that a juvenile can receive within the juveniles system and it is shown to generally fail at rehabilitation. Instead, these youths not only reoffend, but they tend to reoffend more frequently and reoffend more seriously than those juveniles who faced less punitive dispositions. The U.S. Department of Justice’s most recent data on American youth shows that the 12-month recidivism rate for youth on probation is 15 percent on average—much lower than the rate for those who have been sent to detention centers.

Community-Based Justice

Community-based alternatives to detention and incarceration enable communities to work with youth who they know firsthand—resulting in reduced offending behavior. These approaches use the expertise and wisdom of those directly affected by the criminal justice system and repairs some of the damage done by traditional justice systems. In these programs, individuals from the children’s home communities provide supervision, case management, recreation, education service, personal accountability systems, and personal empowerment opportunities. When youths see their communities as a means of support, they are more likely to avoid criminal activities in those communities—which is where most crimes are committed by children—in the future. Most importantly, these systems keep youths out of the criminal system.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice programs have been proven to both stop crime at its source. Such programs acknowledge the whole picture of how crimes impact our society. Programs include victim-offender mediation, conferencing, healing circles, restitution, peer juries, youth courts, and community service. Restorative justice focuses on the repair of harm and prevention of reoccurrence. The philosophy behind this approach is that crime control lies primarily in the community and that punishment alone cannot change behavior, and that victims are central to crime resolution. While the current system focuses on establishing past guilt, restorative justice focuses on problem-solving and obligations of the future. Additionally, restorative justice programs cost much less than the current system and effectively reduce recidivism.

Community Engagement Task Forces

Community engagement task forces are filled with invested community members, service providers, advocates, organizers, families, and youth who have committed to holding the justice system accountable for its disparities. These groups demand data and then strategize and act accordingly to eliminate inequities. When these task forces are focused on juvenile justice and reduction of juvenile crime, they can make a huge impact in communities by resorting influence and human dignity in the lives of youth who feel abused and undervalued.

Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development is a strength-based approach to dealing with adolescents that leads to high levels of youth success. Research shows that youths need socialization, opportunities for work, positive role models, skill development, healthy venues for creativity, and chances for civic leadership. This can be done through mentoring programs for youths in the community, but it can also be used for mentoring after a crime has been committed, rather than retributive punishment. Speaking with a mentor and planning for the future with someone who will actually follow up with you is a strong predictor that a youth would not recidivate. The fact that these programs focus on relationships, rather than as a mandate for youths, is what has made them so successful where they are implemented.

Handling Conflict

Through this author’s research and a study conducted at the Boston-based Strategies for Youth (SFY), it was found that police officers often fail to understand the way that youths will react to them—including that youths are more likely to have reactive behavior due to their age. When officers approach with authoritative tones, youths become defensive and refuse to comply. Through questioning, it was also found that youths expect police officers to act the way they see on TV—as detectives, not as patrol or “beat” cops. The only way to restore this relationship is for police to act with respect so that the youths feel respected and can act accordingly.

SFY’s training program and communication with youths has brought juvenile arrests by the Boston Transit Police Department down from 646 in 1999 to 74 in 2009. New York City, which is also implementing a program that works with youths, has also seen a decrease in crime as strategies for better interactions is implemented.


Current strategies of dealing with youth are failing. More community-based approaches need to be implemented; they are effective, socially responsible, affordable, culturally competent, and uphold human rights laws and norms.