Juvenile court judges are the most important public figures in the juvenile justice system. Their decisions impact hundreds of thousands of youths each year, including the extent of their involvement in the court system and whether they can stay in their homes and communities. These judges’ decisions impact the future trajectory of many young people’s educations, careers, and overall well-being.
However, a new, comprehensive report reveals that most states do not have dedicated juvenile court judges, and only a few states require these judges to have any specialized training, expertise, or experience. The 50-state study, from The Council of State Governments Justice Center and The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), also found that many states do not provide adequate resources to guide juvenile court judges in making informed decisions, including risk assessments and reports, tools to help engage young people’s families, or data on effective community programs and services.
Despite the importance of juvenile court judges, the majority of states have not assessed how the operations of and decisions made by their juvenile courts impact public safety and youth outcomes. The unfortunate result is that many juvenile court judges are often left to make life-changing decisions for youth with limited supports or information, while balancing community safety, public sentiment, media scrutiny, and political pressure. The study was conducted in 2021, with support from the State Justice Institute, and is the first of its kind to investigate how juvenile courts are structured and operate across the United States.
The report concludes with five recommendations to help states strengthen their juvenile court systems to ensure that youth justice systems are efficient, effective, and equitable:
- Establish specialized, dedicated juvenile and family court judges responsible for hearing delinquency cases. Juvenile court judges should have the same level of authority and stature as judges who handle civil and criminal cases, including background and experience requirements.
- Ensure that judges statewide have the information, tools, and data needed to make decisions based on research to improve public safety and youth outcomes. States should require that judges be provided with the results of risk and needs assessments, as well as relevant juvenile data and best practice guidelines to inform judicial decisions.
- Require all judges who hear delinquency cases to receive training on adolescent development and juvenile justice research prior to taking the bench and annually. Judges should receive an orientation to juvenile justice case law, research, and best practices. States should also establish a formal peer-to-peer support system through judicial shadowing and mentoring.
- Establish dedicated forums, initiatives, and supports specifically for strengthening the juvenile court, including a new federal Court Improvement Project appropriation targeting juvenile justice court improvements. States must equip juvenile judges with the practical and emotional supports needed to do their jobs effectively, healthily, and sustainably. This can be done through dedicated administrative and emotional supports, formal collaboratives such as judicial committees, and federal resources explicitly designated for juvenile court improvements.
- Identify statewide performance measures for juvenile court judges and collect and use data to strengthen decision-making and accountability. Few states have established the infrastructure required to evaluate whether court decisions are aligned with research and best practice. States must define what juvenile court effectiveness looks like as well as establish a transparent and collaborative performance measurement system.
- Read the full report to learn more about the 50-state study, findings, and recommendations.
- See the new juvenile court section of the Juvenile Justice Geography, Policy, and Practice for a state-by-state view of how all 50 states structure and operate their juvenile courts.