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The abuses and virtual exclusion of crime victims and their perspective in the decision-making process of many juvenile courts are widely acknowledged and well documented.

To a large extent, judges have been left to defend the treatment ethic of the juvenile court in the face of an onslaught by policymakers and new statutes that have usurped much of the court's traditional discretion over delinquent youth and have mandated a much more punitive dispositional focus.

—Focus Group comments

For the past century, America's juvenile court system has focused on its mandate to act in "the best interest of the child" when dealing with young offenders. However, the past two decades have seen a move toward more punitive approaches and procedures in juvenile courts and justice systems that now make it difficult to distinguish them from criminal courts (Feld, B., 1990, 1993). Although expansion in punishment and formalized procedures has moved juvenile courts away from the exclusive focus on the "best interests of the child" (young offenders) (Lemov, P., 1994), it did not move the courts toward "the best interests of the victim." Only very recently have some juvenile justice professionals begun to pay attention to victims' needs.

During the 1980s and 1990s, victims' rights were expanded in criminal courts. In stark contrast, victims in the juvenile justice system continued to have few rights. Recently, this lack of victims' rights in juvenile courts came to the attention of policymakers and professionals. The American Correctional Association Victims Committee published the Report and Recommendations on Victims of Juvenile Offenders (Seymour, A., and S. English, 1994) stating, "Victims should not be discriminated against solely due to the age of their offender."

The recent developments highlighted below provide promise for changing the role of victims in juvenile justice systems and for changing how juvenile courts view victim involvement in court proceedings:

Twenty-nine states have passed constitutional amendments for victims' rights, including notification, input, restitution, and protection. Many of these amendments extend expanded rights to victims of juveniles and to victims of adult offenders.

In many states, the traditional cloak of secrecy that once covered juvenile courts is being lifted by new statutes. Crime victims and their allies are serving as the key proponents of this movement to increase victim involvement in and knowledge about juvenile court proceedings.

By summer 1997, a total of 30 states and many local jurisdictions had adopted legislation or policies based on the Balanced and Restorative Justice model (O'Brien, S., 1999). Providing a new mission and framework for juvenile justice, this model incorporates the needs and interestsof the victim, the community, and the youthful offender. This restorative justice trend is potentially one of the most significant factors driving change in the role of crime victims in America's juvenile courts.

Although changes in juvenile probation and corrections programs are already under way to involve victims and better address their needs (Seymour, A., 1997; Wilkinson, R., 1997), meaningful change in the juvenile court process is impossible without the support of judges as juvenile court leaders. Although most judges are not insensitive to the needs of crime victims (Leip, L., and G. Bazemore, in press), it is important to reflect upon two key factors that seem to determine the success or failure of most judges in responding sensitively to crime victims. First, does the judge make changes in his or her court that might improve services for victims of juvenile crime? And, second, does the judge provide for victims' meaningful involvement and input into the juvenile justice process?

With regard to the first factor, too few juvenile court judges have been engaged in training, dialogue, and initiatives to improve juvenile court responsiveness to victims. Too often, crime victims and their advocates speak only to each other, to researchers, and to policy and program development professionals. Judges seldom have opportunities to be educated about and explore alternatives to policies, procedures, and administrative protocols that contribute to victim frustration. Previous forums and research studies have effectively identified problems in juvenile courts from a crime victim's perspective, including problems in court culture and the behavior of individual juvenile court judges (Young, M., 1995). However, there have been few opportunities to hear from judges on these issues and little chance to conduct joint dialogue, consensus building, strategic planning, and mutual problem solving between judges and crime victims.

With regard to the second factor, until recently judges have had few incentives to implement changes to make their courts more responsive to victim concerns. In general, juvenile courts have been slow to develop policies to mandate, authorize, or encourage judges to devote greater attention to the needs of crime victims or to invite increased victim involvement into the court process. Furthermore, little persuasive logic has been offered by the judiciary, criminal justice researchers, or victim advocates to link the victims' agenda either to the traditional individual treatment and best interests mandates of juvenile courts or to the new retributive juvenile justice agenda. While more victims' rights legislation and policies are clearly on the horizon for juvenile courts in many states, most juvenile courts and juvenile justice systems responding to these new mandates must do so in the absence of a mission or a model policy or a philosophical framework (Bazemore, G., and M. Umbreit, 1995). This lack of guidance will make it difficult for these juvenile courts and justice systems to integrate crime victims' needs and concerns with other rationales for justifying the existence of a distinctive court and justice system for juveniles.

What Is Restorative Justice

estorative justice is a new way of thinking about and responding to crime. It emphasizes one fundamental fact: Crime damages people, communities, and relationships. If crime is about harm, then the justice process should emphasize repairing the harm. As a vision for systemic juvenile justice reform, restorative justice suggests that the response to youth crime must strike a balance among the needs of victims, offenders, and communities, encouraging each to be actively involved to the greatest extent possible in the justice process. Restorative justice builds on traditional positive community values and on some of the most effective sanctioning practices, including victim-offender mediation, various community decisionmaking and conferencing processes (for example, reparative boards, family group conferencing, and circle sentencing), restorative community service, restitution, victim and community impact statements, and victim awareness panels.

The most new and important ideas in restorative justice are expressed in a set of principles that redefines the way justice systems address public safety, sanctioning, and rehabilitative objectives. Specifically, when crime is understood as harm and justice is understood as repair and/or healing, and when the importance of active participation by victims and community members in response to crime is emphasized, basic community needs are understood and addressed in a different way.

Today, when a crime is committed, most juvenile justice professionals are primarily concerned with three questions: Who did it? What laws were broken? What should be done to punish or treat the offender? Although questions of guilt, lawbreaking, and appropriate intervention are certainly vital to prosecutors, these questions alone may lead to a limited range of interventions based solely on treatment and punishment, which cannot meet the complex needs of the community, victim, offender, and family.

Viewed through the restorative lens, crime is understood in a broader context than what is suggested by the questions of guilt and how to punish or treat the offender. Howard Zehr (1990) argues that in restorative justice three very different questions receive primary emphasis: What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime? What needs to be done to "make it right" or repair the harm? Who is responsible for the repair?

Defining the harm and determining what should be done to repair it are best accomplished with input from crime victims, citizens, and offenders in a decisionmaking process that maximizes their participation. The decision about who is responsible for the repair focuses attention on the future rather than the past and also sets up a different configuration of obligations in response to the crime.

No longer simply the object of punishment, the offender is now primarily responsible for repairing the harm caused by his or her crime. A restorative juvenile court and justice system would, in turn, be responsible for ensuring that the offender is held accountable for the damage and suffering caused both to victims and victimized communities by supporting, facilitating, and enforcing reparative agreements. But, most important, crime victims and the community play critical roles in setting the terms of accountability and monitoring and supporting completion of obligations.

If crime victims and the community are to become fully engaged as active participants in the response to youth crime, juvenile justice professionals must begin to think about these stakeholders in different ways. To move forward with this new agenda, it is very important to understand the potential role of crime victims as key stakeholders in the response to youth crime. In addition, the role of the professional and the mandate of the juvenile justice system are likely to change.

Bazemore, G., and M. Umbreit, Conferences, Circles, Boards, and Mediations: Restorative Justice and Citizen Involvement in the Response to Youth Crime, Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.

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Victims, Judges, and Juvenile Court Reform
Through Restorative Justice
October 2000
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