Respect Gap Exists between Cops and Juvenile Justice System

In September 2013, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released a comprehensive survey report on law enforcement’s role in advancing juvenile justice reform. It is nice work and illustrative of baseline information from which future efforts can be measured. There are many conclusions in the report and a lot of morsels to chew upon – too many for a full review in this post.

Most glaring to me is the finding that overwhelmingly the majority of law enforcement leaders perceive the juvenile justice system to be ineffective.  Law enforcement leaders agree that there should be a separate legal system for juveniles; yet their perceptions of the current system are not positive. According to the study, the majority of respondents perceive the juvenile justice system as generally lacking responsive, effective and rehabilitative impacts.

There are other issues (problems) noted including problems with information sharing, not being involved in key decision making, a need for more (and more effective) diversion programs, along with wishes to be more engaged as leaders in their local juvenile justice systems.

If you asked a youth and/or their caretaker involved in the juvenile justice system to identify which agencies make up the juvenile justice system, my bet would be that their responses would include local law enforcement. Kids and their families see the arresting officer as the official deciding initial criminality or blame. In my experience communities often identify law enforcement as the first step in the juvenile justice system.

Yet professionals among the agencies working with these families see things differently. This is a fault line that needs immediate attention. I’ve worked around the behavioral health, child welfare and juvenile justice systems for over 30 years. It is beautiful when everyone collaborates and wraps themselves around a youth – holding youth accountable, teaching skills, engaging families, taking care of victims, and ensuring that the public is safe.

It is not so nice when agencies do not collaborate, don’t share a vision for how things should work and then begin to cast blame when things do not go well. Unfortunately, the IACP survey seems to imply that law enforcement leaders view themselves as outside of the juvenile justice system and therefore not a part of an integrated solution.

Clearly they are not (as agencies) subsumed within the juvenile justice system. But certainly, if planned and implemented well, juvenile officers within law enforcement can and should be strategically integrated into effective local juvenile justice systems.

Social science has demonstrated that a youth’s competency and resilience are most effectively built through integration of services and resources. Any services provided that do not integrate community-based resources in consistently effective ways are less impactful, and can actually be harmful. Knowing this challenges us to find ways to make law enforcement professionals a more integrated component within the juvenile justice system. Doing so will increase their ownership in the shared outcomes of any work on behalf of youths entering the system as well as juvenile justice professionals’ engagement in law enforcement’s responsibilities — thus increasing overall system effectiveness.

This starts with questioning the vision, mission, objectives and strategies of both systems (law enforcement as well as juvenile justice) and coming to common agreement as to the roles and responsibilities required of each agency. These roles must complement and integrate rather than work in silos or as partial collaborations.

Yes, we’ll have to tackle the age-old debate of how much “punishment” is needed versus how much habilitation or rehabilitation may be required. But until we agree on what an optimal juvenile justice system should look like, and then provide the training and other resources to ensure effective integration of services – and in this context, law enforcement investigations and other activities are thought of as services – we’ll continue to find plenty of faults with each agency responsible for various components.

Any of you that have been around know that it is all too common for one agency to find fault with another when things don’t go well (e.g., blaming schools, families/parents, the police, courts, mental health, substance abuse, case manager, etc.). We need our leadership in law enforcement and juvenile justice to demonstrate a new perspective on building upon each others strengths. By focusing on solutions and finding ways to better integrate interventions that link law enforcement to the juvenile court process (including diversion and dismissal), we make this happen.

There are enough challenges outside of the juvenile justice system bearing down on vulnerable families. We don’t need to increase fragmentation by our lack of consensus and integration of efforts.

Robin Jenkins is the former deputy director of the Division of Juvenile Justice within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and past chair of the North Carolina Juvenile Justice State Advisory Committee of the Governors Crime Commission

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1 Comment

  1. As usual, Robin’s assessment of what the survey results should tell us are on target. For juvenile justice practitioners who are working hard and often achieving positive results in difficult circumstances, the unflattering perspective that law enforcement has of the jj system should move us to do more than “say it ain’t so”. It is important for jj professionals to understand the challenges faced by law enforcement and what things contribute to that perception – to take proactive steps to engage law enforcement and build bridges and partnerships. Will there always be a different perspective and role? Sure. But, the gap in perception is troubling.

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