Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University who is nationally regarded as an authority on adolescent development, has received a $1.25 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to establish a Temple-based MacArthur Program of Research on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice.
With the funds--the largest MacArthur grant ever awarded to Temple-- Steinberg will assemble a multi-disciplinary research network to better understand the assumptions on which the nation's juvenile justice system functions and how adolescent development influences juvenile law.
"While much research has been done on what factors contribute to kids becoming delinquent, little has been done on what happens to juvenile offenders from the point at which they're arrested through the completion of the court process.
"Most people feel that the current system isn't doing a very good job with these kids. Mistakes are made on both sides--incarcerating juveniles who shouldn't be, and releasing kids who present a danger and should be incarcerated."
Steinberg hopes that the research will provide policy makers and those who work in the juvenile justice system with better information about adolescent development so that those on the front lines--judges, attorneys, probation officers-- can make more informed decisions regarding young offenders.
"More and more juvenile offenses are being transferred to adult criminal court, and this raises serious concerns about what happens to children processed through a system designed for adults.
"What is the best way to handle kids who commit serious or violent crimes? Should they be tried as an adult and punished as an adult? What happens to the 15-year-old who gets sentenced to an adult prison? Is he less likely to commit another crime than if he had gone to a juvenile facility?
At the core of these issues lie deep questions about the nature of human nature, Steinberg believes. "At what age do you say someone is beyond help and throw away the key? At what age can you give second, third or fourth chances? And what factors do you want to consider when you make these decisions?"
Steinberg says the research team will combine academic researchers from such fields as developmental and clinical psychology, sociology, criminology and legal studies with practitioners--juvenile court judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and probation officers.
"We want to find out what the needs are from those who work in, and use, the juvenile justice system, so that we have a chance to make a difference in how the system operates. Can we help a system become fairer and more accurate in how it processes these children?"
The researchers will focus on expanding the knowledge in three specific areas:
- Assessing adolescent competence and determining at what age juvenile offenders can be held responsible for their behavior and participate in the adjudication process by standing trial and giving testimony;
- Determining the risk factors during adolescence for future criminality; and
- Evaluating juveniles' amenability to treatment--what do we need to know about a child to decide which treatment is appropriate
More and more, whether to try a youngster as a juvenile or an adult is dictated by legislative mandate rather than determined by judicial discretion, Steinberg notes. "In many states, by law anyone who commits a particular serious offense--regardless of their age--has to be tried in adult court."
As the nation's juvenile courts approach their 100th anniversary in 1999, he hopes that the work of the MacArthur team will yield information that will transform the face of juvenile justice for the next hundred years.
"The challenge for juvenile courts today," says Steinberg, "is making the right decisions to protect society and to implement changes so that more youngsters at risk or in the system can become contributing members of society."
For more information or to interview Dr. Steinberg, call Harriet K.
Goodheart at Temple's News Bureau, 215-204-7476.