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Lost Causes and Social Injustice: Going Beyond the Dominant Paradigms of Juvenile Justice Policy


The longstanding reality of injustice for youth, particularly for those living in communities hardest hit by inequality, oppression, and disinvestment, deeply contradicts our rhetorical concern for youth welfare as well as the mission of juvenile justice and its dominant paradigms. Scholars have documented the pitfalls of juvenile justice for many years, noting that it issues too much punishment, offers too little support, and perpetuates systemic inequalities (Lemert, 1967; Schur, 1973; Platt, 1977; Bernard, 1992, Goldson and Muncie, 2009; Bishop 2004; Feld, 2000). But, what I see as currently missing or under-emphasized in the existing literature is how key ideas in the dominant policy paradigms, when considered in context, contribute to system conflicts and negative outcomes for youth. If we take seriously that how we think influences what we do, then we must consider more than if various policy models “work” to reduce recidivism, we must also think more seriously about the models themselves, and how they influence the meaning and reality of justice for young people. In this sense, I “take stock” (Cullen et al, 2006) of how we think about juvenile justice.

I analyze the major policy approaches that form the foundation of juvenile justice including rehabilitation, punishment, rights, nonintervention, restorative justice and risk. I examine the models’ key elements, main assumptions, the social contexts in which they are implemented, and their resulting philosophical and pragmatic implications. Despite the dominant models’ ostensibly different approaches, unique positive contributions, and goals for reform, I find that they all tend to lose sight of structural level injustice and leave little hope for kids at the deep end of the juvenile justice system. In this sense, I argue the dominant paradigms of youth justice perpetuate a philosophy of “lost causes”, which connects to our most harmful practices, including excessive punishment, discrimination, and the neglect of social justice and human rights. Such problems, while persistent, are not inevitable, and I conclude with principles for a transformative model that counters lost cause ideology and focuses on social justice.

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