What Works for Juvenile Offenders? Hard to Tell

Posted on July 2, 2012 by


Is it me, or does this look like a juvenile justice drive-thru window? Can we get fries with that? Or cupcakes? Yeah, gimme a side order of cupcakes. Image: CrimeDime

Despite the fact that ‘evidence-based’ and ‘proven best practice’ are buzzwords more popular than sprinkles on cupcakes these days, it’s still hard to figure out what really works when it comes to programs for juvenile offenders.

In an article based on research sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Dan Mears et al. suggest that determining sentence efficacy is more difficult than beating Georgetown Cupcakes in a bake-off. What? You gotta problem wit cupcakes or sumtin?

Mears and his colleagues list six reasons.

First, there is no established set of criteria for how different juvenile justice sanctions and various court-ordered programs and interventions should be classified.

Second, new types of sanctioning approaches, including particular programs or interventions, often evolve in contexts that themselves may account for an identified effect rather than the sanction itself.

Third, the external validity of many sanctions, including those examined in leading meta-analyses and reviews, remains largely unknown. There is limited empirical evidence regarding the impact of various interventions on diverse offender populations in diverse settings in association with diverse outcomes.

Fourth, evidence regarding the internal validity of sanctions does not objectively represent social scientific consensus.

Fifth, evidence on the effects of various sanctions on a diverse set of outcomes is rare.

Sixth, few rigorous studies have examined the relative effectiveness of various incarceration sanctions compared to specific non-custodial sanctions.

So, in short? We aren’t doing a very good job of applying the scientific method to the juvenile justice system. I’m just not even going to pretend to be shocked. We’re still doing what “feels” right rather than seeking out, building, and verifying solutions through a systematic, research-based process of discovery.

Maybe someday.

Just like, maybe someday, they’ll make cupcakes with no calories.  Mmmmmm, someday…


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