Social Work and the Juvenile Justice System

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Social workers and the juvenile justice system work hand in hand for the welfare and rehabilitation of young people.

Society values its youth. Even in Ancient Rome, doli incapax (loosely meaning “incapable of criminal intent or malice”) was instituted in order to protect children from prosecution. The reason given for this guiding principle of Roman law was that young people lacked the mental capacity and understanding required for a guilty conviction. Essentially, young Romans were seen as mischievous by nature and were not treated as adults when crimes were committed.

Today, the United States has a separate legal system in place for juveniles. And the juvenile justice system works hand in hand with social workers for the welfare and rehabilitation of young people.

However, social work organizations do not have the numbers necessary to service every youthful offender who needs assistance. These organizations are in dire need of candidates with master’s degrees in social work.

Recent Trends In Juvenile Delinquency

Juveniles, in the legal sense, are young children and adolescents who are above the minimum age of criminal responsibility but below the age of criminal majority, which is almost universally accepted worldwide as 18 years of age. And delinquency is generally taken as referring to those who meet the criteria for a diagnosis of conduct disorder, according to “Juvenile Delinquency, Welfare, Justice And Therapeutic Interventions: A Global Perspective” by Susan Young, et al., on the National Institutes of Health website.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the juvenile arrest rate increased drastically in response to the widely held public opinion that the juvenile justice system had been too lenient on youthful offenders in the past. Harsher laws resulted in more and more juvenile incarceration. Youth correctional facilities became overcrowded and very few resources were devoted to rehabilitation or psychological interventions.

In the first decade of the new millennium, however, the justice system began to turn toward psychiatric and social services in an effort to handle juvenile delinquents in a more beneficial way. Today, juvenile courts are working with social workers on a regular basis for mental health services, substance abuse counseling, and educational/employment assistance.

In her paper, Susan Young notes that mental health problems in juvenile offenders are higher than non-offenders. For example, two-thirds of male juvenile offenders have at least one psychiatric disorder, and one in five suffers extreme functional impairment as a result of mental health issues.

Because of the levels of immaturity and inexperience present in most youthful offenders, both the juvenile justice system and social services strive to redirect delinquents, rehabilitate them, and reintegrate them into society, rather than resign them to a life of criminal behavior.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 40, states that “State parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child’s respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child’s age and the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.”

Social Workers And Juvenile Offender Services

The circumstances that lead to juvenile delinquency are almost universally social. Poverty, separation, exposure to violence, drug and alcohol problems in the home and other issues pertaining to the environment in which a child is raised contribute to juvenile delinquency. The primary goal of the legal system regarding such children is to enable them to not re-offend in the future.

UNICEF itemizes the scope of social work in the realm of youthful offenders in “The Role Of Social Work In Juvenile Justice.” Social work organizations are tasked with promoting social change, problem-solving in human relationships, and empowering people to enhance their own well-being. These goals can be achieved through the following:

  • Working alongside (but independently) and interfacing with the juvenile justice system.
  • Assisting youthful offenders from the moment of their arrest.
  • Preparing social inquiry reports on the circumstances and characteristics of youthful offenders.
  • Supervising young offenders in the community.
  • Lending support during custodial hearings and sentences.
  • Preparing a juvenile for release from detention or custodial sentences.
  • Offering post-release support and aftercare.

The methods of achieving UNICEF’s goals have been tried and implemented in many ways, across many jurisdictions, with varying degrees of success. Generally, the more social services are made available to youthful offenders, the better the young people’s chances of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

An innovative example of juvenile social services in action can be seen in Ohio. The state government developed the Behavioral Health/Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) Initiative in 2006 as a way of improving the social programs and social worker presence for the state’s youthful offenders. The Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University provided evaluation services for the program, funded through the Ohio Department of Youth Services and the Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Case Western Reserve’s Fred Butcher, PhD, Krystel Tossone, PhD, and Jeff M. Kretschmar, PhD, published the results of their evaluation in “An Evaluation Of The Behavioral Health/Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) Initiative: 2006 – 2015.” Their studies showed that youth in the BHJJ program showed improvements in functioning, and decreases in future delinquency. They experienced fewer school suspensions or expulsions and more than half of the juveniles earned As, Bs, and Cs when they returned to schools after successfully completing the course. BHJJ youth also demonstrated a decrease in trauma symptoms, decreased substance abuse, and a decrease in criminal charges as a result of successful completion.

BHJJ’s success is indicative of the level of success seen by similar programs in other states.

About Case Western Reserve University’s Online Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) Program

Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School is ranked among the top ten Social Work graduate schools by U.S. News & World Report and offers a master’s of social work program online.

The online coursework blends seamlessly with hands-on field experience in three concentrations: Direct Practice (Children, Youth, and Families), Community Practice for Social Change, and Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults). Graduates are prepared for and ready to enter careers in youth services upon completion of their post-graduate education.



Juvenile Delinquency, Welfare, Justice And Therapeutic Interventions: A Global Perspective

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 40

The Role Of Social Work In Juvenile Justice

An Evaluation Of The Behavioral Health/Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) Initiative: 2006 – 2015