Treatment or Punishment? Examining the Reality of Residential Placement for Delinquent Youth

Deborah Plechner, University of California - Riverside

The use of residential placement as a disposition for delinquent wards has increased greatly over the last three decades. While this change is generally believed to benefit youth there are reasons for concern from a critical perspective. This paper will frame this trend in a socio-historical context that acknowledges it as one aspect of the continuous cycles or shifts in juvenile justice policy. These policy shifts reflect the underlying contradiction between the goal of treating youth and the goal of protecting the public from youthful deviance embedded within the everyday practices and discourse of juvenile justice since the Court's inception. From a critical perspective, the paper seeks to highlight how this treatment-punishment contradiction characterizes the experiences of delinquent youth court-ordered into residential placement. Drawing on interviews with youth before and after their placement experience it then compares these experiences with the official discourse regarding the aims and outcomes of residential placement as reflected in case files and in interviews with probation department officials. The contrast between the official and the experiential portrayals of residential placement will be presented and utilized to further shed light on why the use of residential placement continues to grow and how it affects troubled youth.

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Updated 05/20/2006