Book of the Week: Franklin E. Zimring & David S. Tanenhaus, Choosing the Future for American Juvenile Justice

We created this book because it is a hopeful but complicated moment for American juvenile justice. Let’s begin with the good news. While the juvenile court, which was invented in Illinois in 1899, is the youngest of the major institutions of Anglo-American law, it has also become the most popular. There are juvenile courts in all 50 American states and in almost all the nations of the modern world.

There’s also good constitutional news to report. Since Roper v. Simmons (2005) abolished the juvenile death penalty, children’s advocates have been on a winning streak before the Supreme Court. Cases, such as Roper, and more recently, Miller v. Alabama (2012), have sent important signals out to other branches and levels of government that diminished responsibility is a significant legal principle for younger offenders.

Yet the Supreme Court has been more than reluctant to use constitutional doctrine to make structural changes in juvenile justice. Schall v. Martin (1984) is the most explicit example of this reluctance, and there have been no strong indications that the current court is less cautious.

This historical lesson is not necessarily bad news, but it does explain why we designed this book to start a conversation about progressive reform that is both disciplined and practical.

It’s an urgent conversation to have. We must reverse the harm done by state legislatures during the moral panic over youth violence in the 1990s. Across the nation, they created several layers of laws designed to make transfers of children to criminal court processes easier and more frequent. Moreover, major shifts in the power of prosecutors to make transfer decisions without judicial oversight threaten the juvenile court’s mission.

Repealing the worst of 1990s legislation would improve the life chances of the adults that our children become. It is an essential first step.

But we need to do more. The book thus includes sustained attention by leading scholars to emerging issues that affect kids and the juvenile court, such as Michael Caldwell’s comprehensive test of the assumptions made in federal and state law about juvenile sex offenses.

Drawing on the substantive chapters about the new borderlands for juvenile justice, our concluding chapter provides a detailed shopping list of changes. These include demilitarizing secondary schools, limiting secure confinement, eliminating sex offender registration requirements for juvenile offenders, minimizing harmful immigration consequences for young persons without immigration documentation, and reducing collateral consequences for juvenile adjudications.

Yet there is a world of difference between a shopping list and a pantry full of groceries. Even a detailed and well-articulated agenda of reform proposals stops well short of improving anyone’s life chances. Thus, we identify the proper places in government where changes need to take place and explain some of the political and institutional developments that can make change possible.

We also equip would-be-reformers with a mission-centered theory of youth crime policy that is kid-specific, but not juvenile court specific. It applies as well to other categories of youth regulation but not necessarily to other branches of crime control. We hope that children’s advocates will be able to use our proposed strategy and tactics at the local and state level to bring about meaningful change.

That is why we created this book.