Butts to Field: Less Treatment, More Development


Jeff Butts is well-known on the research end of things in juvenile justice, choosing simply to analyze and conclude. But his recent piece for the Youth Transition Funders Group is an impassioned appeal to youth advocates to change course.

"A Sensible Model for Juvenile Justice" asserts that for both the punitive- and rehabilitative-minded, the answer to youth crime is "the most familiar solution." For the punitive, that is increased law enforcement. For those in the rehabilitation camp, Butts notes, it's individualized treatment.

Both, he writes, are "based on the theoretical assumption that the youth involved in the justice system have something ‘wrong' with them." It isn't that treatment isn't a vital part of the system, Butts says. But "it should never be allowed to dominate policy and practice with youthful offenders."

He maintains that drug problems or mental health problems are not the root cause of delinquent activity by most youth ... even those who use drugs or face mental health challenges.

What are the causes?

Butts points to: reaction to school failure, appetite for thrill seeking, defiance of authority, lack of empathy for victims, plain old greed. The way to address these flaws, he argues, is to develop offenders' skills as humans, students and workers; the positive youth development approach (PYD).

It's easy, looking at that list, to see why treatment is an easier sell than PYD, which Butts described in an e-mail to me as his "new religion." The average citizen hears depression, drug addiction, and makes the connection that this youth inherited a hard road.

But greed? Remorselessness? That's just a bad kid, right?

"Exactly," Butts replied when asked if that was what he was trying to convey.

"Too much justice policy is crafted by people who have convinced themselves that they are so pure and good that they would never do anything wrong, and certainly their kids would never do anything wrong. So, young offenders must be disturbed somehow and in need of therapy."

These are strong words from a guy usually content to crunch numbers. Find it here.

Do you know of a location where a PYD approach has taken root? Post a comment or e-mail me.

  • David A. Gaspar

    I concur with Jeff’s comments absolutely. I further believe that there are those of us in the field that have been on that journey for some time. Thanks Jeff!