Concepts to Apply in Juvenile Justice

By: Erin Kay, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)

During the Fall semester of the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program I seminar at the University of Baltimore School of Law, we learned about the importance of concepts that apply to family law and that also are relevant to other areas of practice. Three major concepts we discussed were therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), preventive law, and restorative practices (RP).

Therapeutic Jurisprudence explores the role of law and how it can be utilized as a therapeutic agent. This approach originated in mental health law but now is applied in vast areas of law, including family law. In CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP), we work with Baltimore City public school students to identify and address issues that lead to each child’s truancy. We talk with students in small and large group settings and use different approaches to help them succeed in school.  In the TCP, we apply TJ when working with students who have been labeled as truant, as we strive to achieve outcomes that are therapeutic and beneficial. These outcomes stem from the interactions among the volunteer Maryland judges, TCP staff, University of Baltimore law students, students, parents/caregivers, and school representatives. The use of TJ in the TCP suggests that the application of TJ in the juvenile justice system could prove beneficial to both the youth involved and the adults who work in the system. By adopting a therapeutic approach, for example, juvenile court judges may be more likely to give an empathic ruling based on the juvenile’s individual situation.

Preventive law is a way to identify and avoid potential legal issues before they occur.. Similarly to TJ, preventive law can apply to many areas of law, including family law and the juvenile justice system. The key to this approach is to anticipate and address possible legal problems. In the TCP, we discuss scenarios that the students can relate to, and we ask the students how they would handle them if they occurred. Topics we discuss involve problems at home, conflicts at school, and other age-appropriate subjects. By talking through these issues with the students, we hope to help them understand the best possible way to avoid a problem. In the juvenile justice system, many children are first time offenders. Application of a preventive law focus can teach these youth the best way to stay out of the situations that resulted in their involvement with the juvenile justice system and can discourage them from repeating their mistakes.

Restorative practices (RP) are tools to improve relationships. A large part of RP work is achieved through the use of RP circles. CFCC’s TCP also employs this approach. In our RP circles, the students come together and work as a group to share their stories, build relationships, and solve problems. From this work with youth, it appears that RP can benefit all actors in the juvenile justice system. Juveniles are typically at an age where decision-making skills are still developing. Teaching them a new approach to solve problems and handle difficult situations may help them avoid recidivism. RP circles that include the juvenile, the victim, and possibly other family members and influences are a structured way to discuss how events have affected each individual. Though it is not therapy in itself, the circles can be therapeutic for all who participate.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, preventive law, and restorative practices are all tools that would prove beneficial if applied to the juvenile justice system. The use of TJ within a system dedicated to the youth could result in more sympathetic judges and more individualized rulings based on the child’s experiences. Using preventive law could lead to a decrease in recidivism rates by teaching the youth alternative ways to handle life altering events. Lastly, restorative practices circles would benefit all parties involved by serving as an opportunity for the youth to see how their actions impact the group as a whole. Implementing all three approaches would assist all actors in the juvenile justice system to ensure that the youth of Baltimore City can grow to  become productive citizens.

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