Q&A: Dr. Laurence Steinberg


Few people have made more contributions to the research on juvenile delinquent behavior than developmental psychologist Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a professor at the Temple University Department of Psychology. He also directs the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, and his work on brain development was a key aspect of the successful push to ban the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

He and Dr. Elizabeth Scott recently published Rethinking Juvenile Justice. It's an excellent read that documents how one juvenile justice framework ("traditional") wrought another ("punitive"), and the authors make a case that the next phase in JJ should be the developmental era. Dr. Steinberg agreed to take a few questions over e-mail with JJ Today about the book and his views on juvenile justice..

JJ Today: Your book makes the case that a traditional era of rehabilitation gave way to a more punitive era of juvenile justice, and that this will give way to a system that balances development with punishment.  Your colleague in research, Jeff Butts, recently made a plea to advocates to focus more on development and less on "treatment." Do you agree that youth development has not been enough of a focus among those trying to reform the way JJ works?

Steinberg: I think that many individuals interested in reform have argued that these efforts should incorporate a developmental perspective, but it isn't clear that this is being done in many places. Part of the problem is that many of the conditions under which juveniles are sanctioned are structured to prohibit the very activities that we know foster healthy adolescent development, like giving kids opportunities to make decisions, develop relationships with positive adult role models, and learn important skills.  So the trick is to find a way to punish offenders, facilitate their development, and protect the community at the same time. That's a tall order.  That said, a lot of offenders also need treatment. I don't think these goals (development and treatment) are mutually exclusive. Some of the distinction is semantic.

JJ Today: Has there been a marked change in regard to the perception of juvenile justice systems among youth, and if so when did it occur?

Steinberg: I'm not quite sure what you mean. If you are referring to the way that adolescents themselves perceive the system, I don't think we know, and it would be hard to generalize because systems vary so much from state to state and practices vary so much from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  If you are referring to the way that the public perceives the system, studies show that attitudes and beliefs have not changed all that much in recent years - despite changes in rates of juvenile crime. Generally, most people want a system that holds kids accountable but that attempts to rehabilitate them, at least at the time of their first offense, and especially in the case of kids who are younger than 16.  At the same time, surveys also show that the public's patience is not unlimited, and most people favor punishing and confining kids who habitually break the law, particularly violent offenders. In those cases, protecting the community trumps all other considerations. Frankly, I think the public's attitude is far more rational and reasonable and nuanced than one might think just by listening to politicians' descriptions of what they believe their constituents want.

JJ Today: You mention on page 220 that several states are becoming more cost-conscious when it comes to juvenile justice programming. Can you give readers some examples of states that would fall in this category?

Steinberg: I think the best example is Washington, which is light years ahead of every place else, as far as I can tell.  Washington has a policy institute, supported by the state, that does remarkably thoughtful and detailed cost-benefit analyses of various programs and policies, including delinquency prevention as well as treatment, and then communicates the results of these analyses back to the legislature. They are able to compare programs along a common metric and objectively determine what the best mix of options is by looking at program costs and program results. Some programs turn out to be far more cost effective than others, in that you can achieve the same degree of recidivism reduction for a much lower outlay of dollars. It's a model for other states to follow.

JJ Today: Is it possible that a "young adult" system needs to be created, something between pure juvenile justice and adult corrections? For instance: a system that would be responsible for 18- to 25-year olds, plus 14- to 18- year-old youth waived into adult court?

Steinberg: In our book, we argue for a model in which the juvenile system would have extended jurisdiction - perhaps until age 25 or so - so that dispositions for older juveniles who were adjudicated delinquent would not be so short that they would seem fundamentally unfair when compared to those given to younger offenders. I also think this would go a long way to countering public perception that the system is incapable of sanctioning older juveniles in a way that is fair and that protects the community.  But this model would work well only if there were placements that were designed specifically to address the needs of young adults.  In fact, Professor Scott and I argue that we really need placements that are specifically designed for three age groups - those for kids younger than high school age, those for kids of high school age, and those for young adults.  I think we know that these groups have different developmental, educational, and vocational needs. Our current system is based on the idea that the transition to adulthood takes place at 18. That may have been true 100 years ago, but it certainly isn't true today.

JJ Today: A system has two decisions to make in regard to secure confinement: whether to detain, and whether to commit. What factors do you feel best guide decision-making in those two processes?

Steinberg: Certainly public safety has to be the primary consideration, which argues against the detention or commitment of non-violent offenders. Generally speaking, I think we should reserve secure commitment mainly for violent recidivists. If we used this option more judiciously, the cost savings would be enormous, and the savings could be rechanneled into prevention programs and effective community-based alternatives.  The problem with relying on secure placement is that it buys you very little in crime reduction beyond the effect of incapacitation. Once they are released, offenders who have been locked up are no more or less likely to offend than offenders who receive community-based  sanctions, even after you match the groups on current offense, offense history, and other factors. Incarceration is a very expensive proposition when you look at it from that vantage point. If the only real benefit is limited to the incapacitation effect, it's important to limit its use to offenders whose dangerousness really warrants it.

JJ Today: On page 262, you use the case of Yummy Sandifer [an Illinois youth who started with petty crime, graduated to gang life and was found dead in 1994] to highlight the need to identify better really young kids who are starting criminal activity. How do you balance that need with a desire to keep those same youth out of adjudication? And is anyone doing a good job of this right now?

Steinberg: These are the cases that pose the greatest challenge, I think, because studies show a very poor prognosis for kids who commit serious crimes at a very young age.  But I don't think that the early identification of kids who seem headed on a dangerous pathway necessarily means that we have to formally process them within the juvenile justice system. In fact, in our book we argue that these preadolescents and young adolescents would probably best be treated within the child welfare or mental health systems. The problem with current practice is that most places do one of two things - either process these kids formally in the justice system, which in all likelihood does more harm than good, or simply look the other way, which only sets the stage for the kids to reoffend. I've been involved with the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change program, and one of the goals of that effort is to find ways to identify and treat these young offenders without letting them penetrate any deeper into the justice system than necessary. It's  too early to say that we know what works, but we hope to have something to report within the next few years.

JJ Today: Last week, Shay Bilchik testified before a Congressional hearing and said the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention had lost its focus when it came to work with delinquent youth. What is your opinion on the Office of Juvenile Justice under President Bush, and what should the next president look for in selecting the next OJJDP Administrator?

Steinberg: I really don't know enough about the full workings of OJJDP to respond thoughtfully to this, since my only contact with the office has been in the context of its research mission, which is a very small part of what OJJDP supports.  I know that the office has received less that flattering publicity in recent months, but I must say that OJJDP has been very supportive of our research, both under the Clinton and Bush administrations.