juvenile justice: frame

By Stephanie Summers

[The following is an excerpt from the book.]

If you’re under 18, the color of your skin or the income of your parents may make the difference between the police dropping you off at home or you getting locked up for committing a nonviolent crime. For youth who commit crimes, the juvenile justice system in the United States disproportionately sentences youth from low-income communities of color to confinement, meaning that more often community-based alternative sentences are of primary consideration for white youth offenders. 

Disparity in sentencing along racial and socioeconomic lines is one symptom among many pointing to the need for broad reforms to the juvenile justice system. When it comes to juvenile justice, government upholding public justice for a political community must include two dimensions of justice.  The first is retributive justice – the way a government punishes offenses. The second is restorative justice. This requires laws that recognize the role that other institutions play in restoring juvenile offenders to their communities, and is the means by which a political community seeks restitution and reconciliation.

If you’re under 18, the color of your skin or the income of your parents may make the difference between the police dropping you off at home or you getting locked up for committing a nonviolent crime.

In a rightly ordered juvenile justice system, sentencing should be aligned to administer more than retributive justice. One hallmark of such a system should be that in the case of every adolescent, the goal is to ensure both retributive and restorative justice.

Reorienting the juvenile justice system in the United States to lead to human flourishing will require dramatic changes on the part of both government as well as a host of community-based institutions. This begins with citizens calling government officials to fulfill their high calling to promote public justice. Government’s calling to promote public justice takes crime seriously – as a baseline, it includes protecting citizens from domestic injustice. It is government’s job to ensure public order and public safety and to enforce the consequences of the perpetration of criminal acts against others.  

As Christians, we understand the power of justice that restores.

But in the case of our existing juvenile justice system, government isn’t taking its public justice responsibilities seriously enough. Government fulfilling its high calling to uphold public justice also requires that it do more than is currently being done to make possible the range of sentences that best respect victims, ensure public safety, and lead to the full restoration of juvenile offenders.

Faith-based organizations such as Justice Fellowship make exactly this point, suggesting that the existing criminal justice system should shift to be based on a set of four interrelated restorative justice principles. Their restorative justice model 

“transitions the government from playing the victim of crime to being an administrator of justice; prioritizes and respects victims by providing assistance, validation, restitution, information, protection, and participation; compels offenders to make up for their harms; and advocates for appropriate punishment by providing for a just process, proportional punishment, a chance to make amends, a constructive culture, opportunities to earn trust, and closure; and enables communities to facilitate justice through education, acceptance, supporting victims, civic participation, and fostering safety.”

One application of these principles is the administration and strengthening of community-based sentences. For every adolescent whose therapeutic treatment does not require confinement in order to be effectively administered, the young person should be the recipient of a sentence designed to keep them in their communities. This of course requires the addition of intensive relational and treatment support from the full host of institutions that are necessary to ensure restorative justice. A community-based sentence not only gives a young person the best likelihood of ceasing their criminal activities going forward, but provides the best foundation for human flourishing.

We cannot be naïve about what this will require. When it comes to sentencing for juveniles, especially those from low-income families and communities of color, citizens and government must recognize, strengthen, and promote the work of a diversity of community institutions as essential if youth offenders are to know and understand what it means to be fully restored. We must support the work of the Church as it walks alongside youth offenders, victims, and their families with a message that articulates but does not coerce repentance, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. As leaders in education, we must work to shape our institutions and collaborate with others in order to provide the additional support that youth offenders will need as they are learning how to persevere and persist to complete their education. As leaders in business and nonprofit sectors, we must provide viable pathways for youth employment, helping them to use their God-given gifts and talents to contribute to the well-being of others. 

As Christians, we understand the power of justice that restores. The hope and healing that Jesus brings to the whole world isn’t only about us being restored to right relationship with God. It is also about us being restored to right relationship with one another, and the restoration of the very structures of society.

The juvenile justice system is in need of transformation. As citizens we must work with government officials to ensure that community-based alternatives are a key strategy in restoring youth offenders to full community.


Part One: Discover the Problem

Part One: Discover the Problem

Part Three: Engage the Solutions

Part Three: Engage the Solutions