The vast majority of young people who end up involved with the criminal justice system come from marginalized communities. They very frequently have parents who are absent from their lives because they’re forced to work long hours at multiple jobs, struggling with mental health problems, addicted to drugs or alcohol, incarcerated, or for other reasons. Many violent youth offenders are victims of physical and sexual abuse, while property crimes and involvement with illegal economies (drug dealing, in particular) are often the result of trying to improve a low standard of living for themselves and their families.
A recent study published in Social Work, a journal for the National Association of Social Workers, recognizes the importance of the structural factors that underpin much of the crime committed by youth in the U.S. In “Social Work and Juvenile Probation: Historical Tensions and Contemporary Convergences,” Clark Peters traces the gradual divergence between probation offices and social workers over the last hundred years.
“The correctional system affects individuals and communities at the heart of social work’s efforts: people who are poor and people of color,” Clark writes. “Yet social work has an almost negligible presence in the key roles of this domain.”
Why the separation? Clark presents several explanations, but foremost among them is the transition from the juvenile justice system’s original purported goal of intervention and support for youth offenders to its current emphasis on individual failure. As Clark explains, “The court’s focus on personal culpability did not allow offenders to externalize blame.” In short, each offense is viewed as an insular occurrence and the result of the child’s bad judgment and even their bad character. Sound familiar?
That pretty much sums up the recent history of juvenile justice in the U.S., but is it possible that we’re at the brink of some kind of turning point? Beyond simply using the skill set and perspective of a social worker to help individual kids, Clark concludes with the suggestion that social workers might have a broader impact on the criminal justice system as a whole. He writes that some commentators today “[call for] a role for social workers in reforming a punitive system that is hostile to the communities that social workers purport to serve.”
“Commentators in this vein argue that social workers should advocate for ‘fundamental change’ in the corrections system, and that failure to do so is an implicit endorsement of the nation’s correctional policies and tantamount to ‘professional incompetence.’”
So – exciting new horizon for the role of social workers in juvenile justice? Or the opinions of a few lone rangers whose views will never be reflected in reality?