More than 100 years ago, the United States established a juvenile justice system, a separate mechanism to deal with just such a situation. The goal was to differ from the adult system so as to divert youth from devastating punishments of criminal courts, instead encouraging restorative processes based, not on the crime, but on needs of the juvenile.
Several other distinctions remain between the juvenile and adult justice systems. Proceedings are more informal in the juvenile system, typically providing much more discretion; the judge is to act in the best interest of the child. Court proceedings are closed, records are confidential, and the child is treated with rehabilitation in mind, not prison as punishment. As such, legal safeguards available to adults — such as right to an attorney, knowing specific charges, trial by jury, and facing one’s accuser — were thought unnecessary.
With the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) was founded. OJJDP collaborates with professionals from diverse disciplines to improve juvenile justice policies and practices.
The timeline shown here marks key court decisions in the creation of the American juvenile justice system.
In practice, the tension between punishment and restoration has shifted over time and place, with rules, processes, and norms varying significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Today, the U.S. has at least 51 different juvenile systems, within each state and the District of Columbia. Practices may differ even further, as counties, towns, and cities may govern somewhat differently.
Major challenges for at-risk youth. An at-risk youth is a child who is less likely to transition successfully into adulthood. At-risk or vulnerability does not necessarily mean a child has already experienced a host of negative outcomes but implies that negative effects are much more likely. Risk factors related to delinquency vary, though several common factors, as put forth by the Congressional Research Service, include:
Poverty is almost always high on the list and is also linked to chronic health conditions and low educational attainment.
Children who grow up in two-parent families tend to have better health outcomes and lower delinquency rates.
Two types are particularly harmful to future well-being of children: witnessing violence against their mothers and criminal activity among family members.
Abuse and neglect by parents and other caretakers often lead to many negative outcomes, including poor health, lower cognitive functioning and educational attainment, and poor social development and delinquent behavior.
Witnessing violence in a community is linked to several negative outcomes such as depression, aggressive behavior, anxiety, posttraumatic stress psychological trauma, and antisocial behavior.
Schools with fewer resources are associated with poor academic outcomes. Schools also can create environments with serious social issues such as bullying and behavioral problems.
Children who live in high-poverty areas may be less likely to perceive work as a common activity and are less likely to succeed in school.
Children who move frequently may experience negative outcomes such as lower academic performance, high rates of dropout, emotional and behavioral problems.
Children of color are more likely to live in high-poverty areas and to attend lower-performing schools. Further, racial discrimination can hinder job opportunities for youth.
While none of these are prescriptive, decades of social science research have demonstrated the likelihood that such factors are serious challenges to healthy development. Children are particularly vulnerable if they experience two or more of these risk factors.
Although it is impossible to assess a precise category or number of vulnerable youths, at-risk youth are generally concentrated among seven groups:
Despite these risks, youth who develop strong cognitive, emotional, and vocational skills, among other types of strengths, have greater opportunities to reach their goals.
For further reading, please refer to the report by Congressional Research Service, “Vulnerable Youth: Background and Policies,” by Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantara, January 30, 2018. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33975.pdf