Academic journal article Social Justice

Promises and Pitfalls of Mentoring as a Juvenile Justice Strategy

Academic journal article Social Justice

Promises and Pitfalls of Mentoring as a Juvenile Justice Strategy

Article excerpt


Poor timing may be the benchmark of a bureaucratic system. In 1993, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) proposed a"Comprehensive Strategy" for addressing the problem of juvenile crime. Under this comprehensive strategy, it was recognized that the family and community, with support from other "core" social institutions (such as schools, churches, and local organizations) have primary responsibility for meeting the basic socializing needs of American children (Wilson and Howell, 1993: 10). It was also recognized that failure to meet these basic needs is a primary contributor to juvenile crime.

A recent vote by the federal legislature, however, evidences an abandonment of the wisdom underlying the comprehensive strategy and converts juvenile "justice" to a mirror image of the arguably ineffective system of adult "justice" a system based upon notions of retribution and deterrence only, without regard for the context in which law-violating behavior develops.

Just as statistics were beginning to indicate a drop in juvenile crime (under the comprehensive strategy),(1) the House of Representatives voted 286 to 132 in favor of a bill that would establish a new program of "juvenile accountability block grants." The "accountability" grants program will make $1.5 billion available to states over the next three years. The block grants, however, are only available to those "states that require juveniles charged with serious violent crimes to be charged as adults, make juvenile criminal records public, and otherwise impose tough[er] sanctions on serious juvenile offenders."(2) Interestingly, this $1.5 billion is in contrast to the mere one million dollars in grants that the President's Crime Prevention Council and OJJDP have announced for drug abuse prevention programs targeted at juveniles.(3) Even that figure is to be divided into approximately 10 grants of merely $100,000 each.

The shift in focus for juvenile justice, from prevention and rehabilitation to retribution, deterrence, and perhaps incapacitation, is indicative of a surrender of sorts. The government, having failed to help the nation's children and families, is willing to settle for the easier task of meting out punishment to those who offend.

The tragedy of this approach is that it comes at a time when the tide of juvenile crime had begun to turn by using holistic, less punitive measures than those approved by the House. The shift also comes at a time when evidence of community intervention(4) (rather than governmental intervention) was beginning to emerge as a viable means of preventing and/or reducing juvenile crime.(5)

Given the equivocal nature of research findings regarding the effectiveness of harsh punishment as a means of deterring criminal behavior, two major questions face the American justice system for the 21st century. Does a societal need for revenge outweigh the obligation to protect would-be youthful offenders from elements that have been demonstrated to lead to offending? Once youth have offended, should they be treated as if they have crossed some threshold from which there is no redemption?

Drawing upon the available literature and the experiences of a program designed and implemented by one of the authors, this article argues that mentor programs represent a viable strategy for delinquency prevention and reduction, even for youth who have been adjudicated for serious offenses. However, we caution that the promise of such programs can only be achieved through careful design and implementation that takes into account the special needs and circumstances of the population to be mentored.

We first outline the sociopolitical context in which community self-help began to develop as a necessary means of delinquency prevention and reduction coterminous with more punitive means of attempting to achieve the same goals. Next, mentor programs, a community intervention approach,(6) are distinguished from the (more intrusive) governmental approaches of boot camps and waiver. …

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