Trends in Juvenile Justice State Legislation 2011-2015


Group of high school kids In the past five years, juvenile justice reform legislation in the United States has grown at a remarkable pace. The recent shift in juvenile justice policy marks a clear departure from laws enacted 20 years ago.

After a dramatic increase in serious juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, legislatures in nearly every state passed laws to hold more young offenders accountable through adult sentencing options. Yet by 2015, state after state continues to re-examine its policies and rebalance approaches to juvenile justice to produce more effective responses to youth crime and improve overall justice systems.

Today, juvenile justice reform has become a largely bipartisan issue as lawmakers work together to de­velop new policies to align sound fiscal responsibility, community safety and better outcomes for youth. New legislative reforms reflect an interest in developmentally appropriate approaches to more evidence-based methods and cost-effective alternatives to incar­ceration. There also now exists an abundance of research that is available to lawmakers and the field on adolescent development—that includes the latest neuro, social and behavioral science that distinguishes juveniles from adult offenders. Recent trends in juvenile justice legislation across the country represent a significant new direction to broadly reform justice systems. Specific trends have emerged to:

  • Restore jurisdiction to the juvenile court.
  • Divert youth from the system.
  • Reform detention.
  • Shift resources from incarceration to community-based alternatives.
  • Pro­vide strong public defense for youth.
  • Address racial and ethnic disparities in justice systems.
  • Respond more effectively to the mental health needs of young offenders.
  • Improve re-entry and aftercare programs for youth.

Under a long-standing partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, this report, “Juvenile Justice Trends in State Legislation, 2011-2015,” was produced illustrating the trends in juvenile justice enactments over the past five years. The new report describes the increasing momentum of state juvenile justice policy in recent years and catalogs the volume and variety of juvenile justice legislation enacted in states. It builds on an earlier “Trends Report” released in 2012 that highlights a decade of juvenile justice legislation over 2001-2011.

For more information about the project, see NCSL’s Juvenile Justice Partners and Resources page.

Models for Change

NCSL has a long-standing partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, to inform and assist state legislatures on juvenile justice issues. Its Models for Change juvenile justice has accelerated the movement toward a more effective, fair and developmentally sound juvenile justice system by creating successful and replicable models that improve outcomes for youth, use resources wisely and protect communities.

Additional Resources