Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Juvenile Justice Journey — Social Work Role Returns in New Era of Reform
By Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 19 No. 5 P. 12

Reestablishing a historical bond, social workers reemerge in the juvenile justice system as it shifts from a midcentury punitive approach back to its protective roots.

Social workers led a juvenile justice revolution in the United States during the late 19th century. They were among the reformers instrumental in establishing a separate justice system for youth, recognizing that children committing crimes did not bear the same level of responsibility and did not deserve the same sanctions as adults.

By the end of the 20th century, this ideal for juvenile justice had been replaced by a system that favored punishment over rehabilitation and institutionalization over community care. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and “get tough on crime” politicians dominated, with social workers left on the sidelines.

But the 21st century has brought a wave of reforms attempting to bring the juvenile justice system back to its roots of protecting children’s rights, recognizing how environment affects behavior, and supporting youth and families. These reforms give social workers a crucial opportunity to reassert their place in the system and ensure that reforms continue and are expanded.

“Social workers are definitely taking a more important role in the system, and that role is gaining more prominence,” says Alida Merlo, PhD, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “The social worker is critical in making people see what factors affect a child’s behavior.”

Shifting Priorities, Changing Policies
The history of the American juvenile justice system is often said to have begun in 1899 with the establishment of the Cook County Juvenile Court in Chicago. The court’s opening was a victory for reformers who had fought to create a separate court for youth where they could be kept away from the adult criminal justice system. The early juvenile justice system was centered around parens patriae, the concept that the state could step in to help delinquent children and provide them with services to promote their well-being and make them productive citizens. As social work pioneer Jane Addams wrote in 1935, “There was almost a change in mores when the Juvenile Court was established. The child was brought before the judge with no one to prosecute him and no one to defend him—the judge and all concerned were merely trying to find out what could be done on his behalf” (as cited in Tanenhaus, 2013, p. 283).

Juvenile court judges and probation officers had wide discretion to make decisions such as when to file delinquent petitions, which children needed to be held in pretrial detention, and which children should be transferred to the criminal justice system (Tanenhaus, 2013). The capricious nature by which these judges could decide the fate of the youth before them led to disparities in treatment and increasing calls for reform by the 1950s and 1960s (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, n.d.).

In 1966, the American Civil Liberties Union sued to free Gerald Gault, a teenager whom a judge had ordered to serve six years in juvenile detention for allegedly making an obscene phone call to a neighbor, even though an adult charged with the same offense would have received a maximum of a fine and two months in jail. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled in its In re Gault decision that children were entitled to many of the same due process rights as adults such as the rights to obtain counsel and cross-examine witnesses, as well as the right against forced self-incrimination (Abrams, 2013; Georgetown Law Library, n.d.). After In re Gault, juvenile court proceedings became more like those in the criminal justice system, with defense attorneys, and particularly prosecutors, taking center stage (Tanenhaus, 2013).

The years after the Gault decision were a transition to a new punitive era in juvenile justice as states across the country made it easier for a juvenile to be transferred to the adult system. Changes included dropping the minimum age at which a juvenile could be treated as an adult and expanding the list of offenses that could lead a juvenile to being treated as an adult (Abrams, 2013). By the 1990s, demands increased that the public be protected from a predicted surge of so-called “superpredators,” extremely violent, dangerous, and unremorseful youth who would terrorize communities. Although this myth was eventually discredited, it had pervasive effects on the juvenile justice system. By 2005, a quarter of a million children were prosecuted in adult courts each year (Dennis, 2017). In addition, schools became increasingly willing to use suspensions, expulsions, and police involvement to address misbehavior, leading to more youth involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Despite their core involvement in the establishment of the juvenile justice system, social workers’ direct engagement with the system dwindled as time passed, according to Peters (2011), even though the vulnerable and oppressed populations most affected by the system were those whom social workers traditionally served. Peters cites several possible reasons for the decline, including gender politics in the system that favored men to serve as probation officers as opposed to the largely female field of social work, a distaste among social workers to work with nonvoluntary clients, and the focus of social work on services, such as delinquency prevention, ancillary to the system.

A New Era
Social work now has a chance to reverse those trends as the juvenile justice system continues a new era of its history, says Laura Abrams, PhD, a professor and chair of the department of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “Social workers should care about juvenile justice reform because we need to restore our rightful place with youth who have been in contact with the law,” Abrams says.

The United States Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons to abolish the death penalty for crimes committed by youth younger than 18 and its subsequent decisions to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles accelerated an upsurge of reforms among states and localities nationwide. These reforms address areas such as the following:

• Keeping youth out of the adult system. Many states’ “raise the age” efforts have increased the age when youth are automatically sent to the adult system from 16 or 17 to 18. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be treated in the juvenile justice system (Sears & Schiraldi, 2018).

• Diversion. Diversion has become popular with states as an effort to keep youth from entering the juvenile justice system. Diversion programs typically allow nonviolent youth to complete certain requirements, such as interventions to improve behavior and emotional functioning, to avoid being placed in the justice system (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2015). Some states and localities have decriminalized minor offenses such as truancy, underage possession of alcohol, and fare evasion (Dennis, 2017).

• Reducing detention. A variety of states have curtailed their dependence on detention, particularly for youth who do not pose a significant public safety risk, and increased the use of community-based interventions. For example, New York’s Close to Home initiative closed 23 upstate youth institutions so resources could be directed to community-based services closer to New York City, where the majority of juveniles in residential facilities came from (Center for Children’s Law and Policy, 2018). Wisconsin plans to close its juvenile prison complex in 2021 and replace it with smaller regional centers (Marley, 2019).

Juvenile justice reforms have enjoyed support from policymakers across the ideological spectrum. For example, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan-supported Juvenile Justice Reform Act into law in December 2018. The act updates the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which had not been reauthorized since 2002, and reestablishes core standards for how states and territories treat youth in the justice system. These standards include prohibiting youth from being incarcerated for status offenses such as skipping school, stopping youth from being held in adult facilities while awaiting trials as juveniles, and requiring states to address racial and ethnic disparities in the system (Coalition for Juvenile Justice and National Criminal Justice Association, n.d.).

The factors driving these reforms reflect many central components of the social work perspective. For example, a major driver of reform has been a growing body of knowledge about brain science and child development that demonstrates what social workers argued at the beginning of the juvenile justice system—that children are different from adults and are amenable to treatment. “There has been a huge shift in how the system looks at children under the law,” says Riya Shah, Esq., managing director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

There also is increasing recognition of how trauma contributes to juveniles’ interactions with the justice system. Justice-involved youth often struggle with a variety of traumas, such as poverty-related stress, community or familial violence, parents lost to substance use disorders or incarceration, educational opportunities disrupted by suspensions or expulsions, and undiagnosed or unresolved mental health issues, says Jenese Brownhill, LICSW, program director of SMART Team. The team, a program of the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, provides mental health services, advocacy, and case management to youth and families affected by the juvenile or criminal justice systems. “A lot of young people want to be successful and they don’t want to make bad choices, but there are things that have happened around them,” Brownhill says.

In addition, there is more understanding about the negative long-term consequences incarceration has on youth. Among the problems incarcerated youth can experience are worsening mental health symptoms, abuse from staff or other youth, and an increased likelihood of reoffending—driving them deeper into the justice system (Justice Policy Institute, 2006). These youth, Abrams adds, face special challenges as they try to reenter the community, such as completing their education and acquiring the skills needed to successfully transition to adulthood.

Finally, reforms reflect the increasing attention being paid to the persistent problem of disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system. African Americans comprised 17% of juveniles but 31% of arrests in 2010 (The Sentencing Project, 2014). Black juveniles are more likely than their white peers to be referred to juvenile court, processed, sent to secure confinement, and transferred to adult facilities. It’s also important to focus on intersectionality in the juvenile system, says Ashley Daftary, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Often ignored in both media and scholarship are the negative impacts on young women of color, particularly black young women. This again only perpetuates the problems faced by youth and young adults,” Daftary says. “The same heterosexism and transphobia that pervade U.S. policies and practice also pervade the juvenile justice system.”

Advancing the Cause of Reform
Even though the juvenile justice system has undergone significant reform in the past two decades, there is no guarantee that the system won’t eventually swing back toward a more punitive, institutional-based orientation. For one thing, politics affects juvenile justice policy much in the same way as it affects other types of policy. Although juvenile crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, Merlo says an uptick in those rates could shift public opinion back to a “get tough” stance that threatens current reform policies. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue [with reforms], but I’m aware that there could be a sudden shift,” Merlo says.

Abrams says another issue is whether reforms truly pervade the juvenile justice system. The system has so many layers and so many individual actors that it’s difficult to tell whether reforms are being fully implemented. “It’s a very complicated system, and I think that’s why we have to keep an eye on it,” Abrams says. “We can’t consider [reform] done, even though a lot of progress has been made for sure.”

There are deep-seated societal and systemic barriers to reform, as well. Sonya Goshe, PhD, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Ohio Dominican University, has identified three problems that would impede progressive reform if left unresolved: the ideology of “callous self-sufficiency” that ignores how environmental factors shape personal choices, neglect of child welfare and human rights, and a focus on efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and risk management that threatens to further marginalize youth considered “high risk” (Goshe, 2015). These problems have persisted since her article’s publication, and it’s still uncertain whether reforms will be enough to overcome the punitive legacy of the country’s justice system, Goshe says.

Despite these challenges, there are myriad ways social workers can advance the cause of juvenile justice reform. A good place for social workers to start is to become informed about the issues, gain awareness of what’s going on to support reform in their communities, and connect with advocacy groups, Abrams says.

Campaigning for reform is key, as well. Brownhill argues that social workers are ideal advocates for reform because they often work with youth and families affected by the juvenile justice system and can bring key information about the experiences of these populations to lawmakers. Social workers also understand the human rights implications of racial and ethnic disparities in the system, Brownhill says.

Some social workers are empowering youth to participate in advocacy. The Juvenile Law Center’s Juveniles for Justice program gives youth who have been involved in the juvenile justice system the opportunity to develop and implement advocacy projects. The program’s recent projects have focused on issues such as educational outcomes, conditions in juvenile prisons, and juvenile justice fines and fees. “It allows people who are making the decisions to hear directly [from youth] about their experiences,” says Marcía Hopkins, MSW, senior manager of the youth advocacy program and policy at the Juvenile Law Center. “[The youth] want to share these experiences.”

Another area in which social workers are getting more involved is building cooperation and collaboration between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Fostering connections between the systems is vital to preventing crossover of youth from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system, says Karen Kolivoski, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the Howard University School of Social Work. “If we strengthen resources for child welfare, that could disrupt the child welfare to juvenile justice pipeline,” Kolivoski says.

Key to ensuring that reforms continue is to ensure that more social workers play a direct role in the juvenile justice system just as they did at the system’s beginnings. The system could only benefit from a greater presence of social workers, Brownhill says. “I’m really excited about what’s going on currently, and if we have more social workers who see this as an area where they could have a career, that’s great,” Brownhill says. “The kids deserve it.”

— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and an editorial advisor at Social Work Today.


Abrams, L. S. (2013). Juvenile justice at a crossroads: Science, evidence, and twenty-first century reform. Social Service Review, 87(4), 725-752.

Center for Children’s Law and Policy. (2018, February). Implementation of New York’s Close to Home initiative: A new model for youth justice. Retrieved from http://www.cclp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Close-to-Home-Implementation-Report-Final.pdf.

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (n.d.). Juvenile justice history. Retrieved from http://www.cjcj.org/education1/juvenile-justice-history.html.

Coalition for Juvenile Justice, National Criminal Justice Association. (n.d.). Summary of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. Retrieved from http://www.juvjustice.org/sites/default/files/resource-files/Summary%20of%20the%20Juvenile%20Justice%20Reform%20Act%20of%202018.pdf.

Dennis, A. L. (2017). Decriminalizing childhood. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 45(1), 1-44.

Georgetown Law Library. (n.d.) In re Gault research portal: Introduction. Retrieved from https://guides.ll.georgetown.edu/in_re_gault.

Goshe, S. (2015). Moving beyond the punitive legacy: Taking stock of persistent problems in juvenile justice. Youth Justice, 15(1), 42-56.

Justice Policy Institute. (2006, November 28). The dangers of detention: The impact of incarcerating youth in detention and other secure facilities. Retrieved from http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/06-11_rep_dangersofdetention_jj.pdf.

Marley, P. (2019, February 18). Bill would delay closure of Lincoln Hills and could put a new agency in charge of programming at teen lockups. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2019/02/18/bill-would-delay-lincoln-hills-closing-put-new-agency-charge/2904037002/.

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2015, September). Trends in juvenile justice state legislation: 2011-2015. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/documents/cj/Juvenile_Justice_Trends.pdf.

Peters, C. M. (2011). Social work and juvenile probation: Historical tensions and contemporary convergences. Social Work, 56(4), 355-365.

Sears, D., & Schiraldi, V. (2018, July 5). Dick Sears and Vincent Schiraldi: Vermont leads the way on juvenile justice reform. Bennington Banner. Retrieved from https://www.benningtonbanner.com/stories/dick-sears-and-vincent-schiraldi-vermont-leads-the-way-on-juvenile-justice-reform,543986.

Tanenhaus, D. S. (2013). First things first: Juvenile justice reform in historical context. Texas Tech Law Review, 46, 281-290.

The Sentencing Project. (2014, May). Disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Disproportionate-Minority-Contact-in-the-Juvenile-Justice-System.pdf.


Perhaps no entities in the juvenile justice system have come under more criticism than juvenile detention centers. Reports abound of overcrowding, understaffing, reliance on restraints and isolation to control behavior, youth suffering abuse, and lawsuits over mistreatment.

Despite efforts to reduce the use of detention centers, they remain a part of the juvenile justice landscape, holding more than 18,000 youth a day (Prison Policy Initiative, 2018). And some centers, recognizing the need for reform, have enacted sweeping reforms in an attempt to change their cultures.

One such center is the Ingham County Youth Center in Lansing, MI. Once run using an adult corrections model, the center began to move toward a treatment-based model in the mid-2000s as it shifted to an approach centered on cognitive behavioral interventions, social learning theory, and positive youth development. The center worked to create a trauma-sensitive environment for youth that includes mindfulness activities, meditation exercises, yoga, and aromatherapy, and it also offers gardening, art, and therapy dog programs.

Richard Gentry, director of the Ingham County Youth Center, acknowledges that it was difficult to make the changes, as staff wondered whether a new approach would work or would give too much power to youth. But the center recognized that changes were needed to best serve youth. “We know that [adult, punitive] approaches are not healthy, and they’re not effective in working with juveniles,” Gentry says.

A similar evolution occurred at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Covington, LA. Among the changes at the center were the implementation of a mediation team where youth work with staff to process disputes, the introduction of de-escalation teams, and a mentorship program (Roush, 2019). In 2016, the center received the Barbara Allen-Hagen Award from Performance-based Standards, a Massachusetts-based organization that helps juvenile justice entities provide effective and safe rehabilitation and reentry services.

The Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center also uses a cognitive behavioral therapy approach and has several social workers and a child psychologist on staff to address young people’s mental health issues, as well as a psychiatrist available via telehealth, says Joseph Dominick, MPA, executive director of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice District. “We’re headed in the right direction,” Dominick says. “Society is always evolving, and we have to evolve with it.”

— CR


Prison Policy Initiative. (2018, February 27). Youth confinement: The whole pie. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/youth2018.html.

Roush, D. W. (2019). Recalibrating juvenile detention: Lessons learned from the court-ordered reform of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. New York, NY: Routledge.