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Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008

Improving Professional Judgments of Risk and Amenability in Juvenile Justice
Edward P. Mulvey Anne-Marie R. Iselin

Summary

The dual requirement to ensure community safety and promote a youthful offender's positive development permeates policy and frames daily practice in juvenile justice. Balancing those two demands, explain Edward Mulvey and Anne-Marie Iselin, requires justice system professionals at all levels to make extremely difficult decisions about the likely risk and amenability to treatment of adolescent offenders.

Mulvey and Iselin point out that although various forms of "structured" decision-making instruments are used widely in other fields, juvenile justice professionals today make limited use of these tools. Instead, they make decisions based mainly on their intuition about whether the adolescent before them is more likely to harm the community or to use justice system services to turn his life around. The reluctance of busy court professionals to use these structured decision-making tools, they say, arises partly from their heavy work load. But it also grows out of the ethos of the juvenile court itself. Restricting an adolescent's freedom or access to interventions based on a tallying of empirical data is antithetical to viewing each adolescent as a unique individual whose life chances may remain intact with developmentally appropriate intervention.

Mulvey and Iselin recommend and examine three ways to integrate structured judgment approaches into the juvenile justice system that both capitalize on their strengths and support the court's attempts to provide fair, individualized justice. First, more reliance on actuarial methods at detention and intake would promote more efficient and equitable screening of cases for subsequent court involvement. Second, the use of structured decision making by probation officers could provide more consistent and valid guidance for the court when formulating dispositions. Finally, implementing structured data systems to chart the progress of adolescents in placement could allow judges to oversee service providers more effectively.

The challenge for the juvenile system, say the authors, will be to harness the new capacities of the science of decision making and of computer technology to increase the efficiency of its limited resources for the benefit both of the community and of the adolescents in the system.