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Practice Profile

Formal System Processing for Juveniles

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types

Practice Description

Practice Goals/Theory
When juveniles commit offenses, juvenile justice practitioners (including police officers, district attorneys, court intake officers, and court judges) must decide whether juveniles are formally processed through the justice system, diverted from the system to a program (such as counseling), or are released from the system altogether. Formal system processing for juveniles refers to the practice of processing youths through the traditional juvenile justice system without consideration of alternative sanctions or diversion. Due to the age of offenders and the sensitivities surrounding their environment and upbringing, the juvenile justice system often relies on rehabilitative sanctions and alternatives to detention when dealing with youth, especially nonviolent first-time offenders. The logic of such sanctions is to provide youth with a second chance and to keep them from further penetrating the juvenile justice system by using any number of diversion programs (such as cognitive behavioral therapy or substance abuse treatment) that aim to prevent further offending behavior. On the other hand, formal system processing aims to manage young offenders formally through the juvenile justice system, leading them to adjudication and possible detention for their offenses. Of the approximately 1,504,100 delinquency court cases heard in 2009, 55 percent were petitioned and formally handled in the juvenile justice system while 45 percent (680,900 cases) were handled informally through voluntary probation, a different type of sanction (such as a diversion program), or dismissal (Puzzanchera et al. 2012).

The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to ensure public safety while intervening with juvenile offenders. As such, the role of formal system processing can be understood as one which aims to prevent low-level offending from developing into more serious offending by dealing with young offenders harshly to deter them from a criminal future. From a public safety perspective, formal processing removes the individual from the community to protect the public. Proponents of such measures express the opinion that this teaches young people about responsibility and the consequences of their actions, and prevents them from becoming repeat offenders by punishing them to the extent of the law. Detractors argue that by further entangling young people and children in the juvenile justice system, they become more likely to be involved in a life of crime because of their increased exposure to other criminal peers, the justice system, and the effects of “labeling” (Petronsino et al. 2010; Schur 1973).

Target Population
The nature of formal system processing (and juvenile diversion programs) requires that this practice only apply to people under the age of 18. This is due to the much more constrained sentencing possibilities for adult offenders. There is also much less discretion in cases of serious offences. Therefore, the choice between using formal system processing or a diversion program mainly applies to juvenile offenders accused of less serious crimes.

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
The Petrosino and colleagues (2010) meta-analysis assessed 27 studies and found a small negative effect (d= -.109) for formal system processing of juveniles, meaning that juveniles that were formally processed through the juvenile justice system were more likely to recidivate compared with youth who were diverted from the system. This difference, however, was not statistically significant.
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11973 - 2008297304

Meta-Analysis 1
The meta-analysis by Petrosino and colleagues (2010) set out to investigate if juvenile system processing reduced delinquency. Typically, an evaluation of a diversion program will include a control condition which will be the normal system processing. To examine the effects of formal system processing for a meta-analysis, the conditions are switched, in that the comparison condition of the studies becomes the treatment of interest.

To be eligible for the review, studies needed to use random assignment of participants to conditions, include only juveniles under the age of 17 who have not yet been adjudicated, assign those juveniles to a formal system processing or comparison condition, present at least one quantifiable measure of criminal behavior, and be reported through 2008. Where one experiment was reported in multiple studies, information was extracted to complete all the necessary coding for that experiment. The literature search yielded a total of 29 controlled trials that covered a period from 1973 to 2008, with 22 conducted before January 1990. Books and journals provided 11 of the experiments, while 18 others were unpublished material (e.g., technical reports). The mean age of the sample was 14.73 years, with 61 percent white, and 74.2 percent male. Control juveniles were assigned to diversion with services in 15 experiments, while the remaining 14 assigned them to diversion alone, which are release or counseling and release. Nineteen of the controlled trials used designs that included three or more groups. Only five studies targeted specific types of juvenile offenders (mostly property offenders, such as shoplifters). The majority of studies included juvenile offenders of all types.

Information from each study on crime and delinquency outcomes was extracted. The authors organized this outcome data into five categories for analysis: prevalence, incidence, severity, time to event, and self-report. Only 27 experiments with available prevalence outcomes, which assessed the percentage of each group that reoffended, are assessed in this review.

The analysis used a random effects model and inverse variance weighting to examine standardized mean effect sizes (Cohen’s d), which were computed for each included study. All studies used random assignment, with 17 using specific random methods, 3 using quasi-random methods (such as alternation), and 9 not providing enough detail to determine the specifics or their random assignment process.
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It should be noted that the cost of formally processing youths through the juvenile justice system is often greater than the cost of the myriad of alternatives and diversion programs. This can mean that even if alternative sanctions have no impact on future reoffending, they may prove to be substantially more effective in a cost/benefit analysis (i.e., cheaper than formal system processing although not significantly affecting reoffending) (Petrosino et al. 2010).
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Petrosino, Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and Sarah Guckenburg. 2010. “Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 1.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Petrosino, Anthony, Carolun Turpin-Petrosino, and Sarah Guckenburg. 2013. Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency. No. 9 of Crime Prevention Research Review. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Puzzanchera, Charles, Benjamin Adams, and Sarah Hockenberry. 2012. Juvenile Court Statistics 2009. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Schur, Edwin. 1973. Radical Nonintervention: Rethinking the Delinquency Problem. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
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Related Programs

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Following are programs that are related to this practice:

Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care–Adolescents Effective - More than one study
A behavioral treatment alternative to residential placement for adolescents who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. This program is rated Effective. It was associated with a significant drop in official criminal referral rates, involvement in criminal activities, and days spent in lock up among MTFC-A boys. Similarly, the program was associated with a significant reduction in delinquency and days spent in lock up among MTFC-A girls.

Multisystemic Therapy (MST) Effective - More than one study
A family and community-based treatment program for adolescent offenders who have exhibited serious antisocial, problem, and delinquent behaviors. The program is rated Effective. The treatment group had fewer rearrests and spent fewer days incarcerated than a comparison group that received usual services The program had a positive impact on family cohesion and social skills for the intervention group; but over time did not show better substance use outcomes than the comparison.

Indianapolis (Ind.) Family Group Conferencing Experiment Promising - One study
A restorative justice diversion program for young, first-time juvenile offenders. The goal was to break the cycle of offending before it reached the stage of repeat offending. The program is rated Promising. Participants were less likely to recidivate as fast and had, on average, fewer rearrests than juveniles in the control group.

AMIkids Community-Based Day Treatment Services Promising - One study
A day treatment program that provides community-based interventions while allowing youth to reside at home as they attend daily services. The program is rated Promising. The treatment sample was significantly less likely to be adjudicated or convicted for an offense within 12 months of release.

Adolescent Diversion Project (Michigan State University) Effective - More than one study
A strengths-based, advocacy oriented program that diverts arrested youth from formal processing in the juvenile justice system and provides them community-based services. This program is rated Effective. The program was associated with a significant reduction in the rates of official delinquency of participating juveniles as compared to juveniles formally processed in the system. However, the program did not significantly affect youths’ self-reported delinquency.
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Practice Snapshot

Age: 0 - 17

Race/Ethnicity: Other, White

Targeted Population: First Time Offenders, Truants/Dropouts, Young Offenders

Settings: Correctional

Practice Type: Alternatives to Detention, Court Processing, Diversion, Specific deterrence

Unit of Analysis: Persons