This thoughtful book is a whistle-stop tour through history to the avant garde of juvenile correction in the US. It takes us from the ‘workhouse’ institutions for indigent youth of the late-19th century, through recurring eras of juvenile-crime hysteria and the ‘tough-love’ response, to a more hopeful present where rehabilitation is the order of the day.

A Return to Justice touches briefly on recent advances in neuroscience, particularly research suggesting that the developmental trajectory of the adolescent brain means that it is physiologically dissimilar to an adult’s brain. The book also acknowledges the view that incarceration tends to increase the chances of recidivism. However, Nellis is positive: children who encounter the criminal justice system may now be seen not just as ‘little adults’, but as possessing fundamentally different personalities which need to be treated (and indeed punished) in a different way.

This revolution in understanding, together with societal fears of ‘super predictors’ – anticipation of bands of marauding, knife-wielding children which took root throughout the 1980s – being dismissed as myth, has produced a climate in which new models for dealing with juvenile crime have been able to grow.

Nellis considers the evolving climate by looking at examples of change in certain states. Broadly, two factors seem to be at work: a national decision to invest in smaller-scale systems that are able to cater for individuals at state rather than federal level; and increased private investment from local charitable foundations. Such moves, in contrast to the punitive agenda of historic interventions, seem to have at heart a pastoral attitude with a genuine intention to improve the lot of individuals.

Author: Ashley Nellis

£24.95, Rowman & Littlefield

The author suggests there is more to be done. The proposed optimal outcome for a system of juvenile justice – a proxy for ‘a caring and compassionate parent’ – remains some way off. However, the book ends affirmatively: a truly youth-oriented justice system, Nellis suggests, is now in sight.

Empirical research indicates that rehabilitation in the community is an increasingly likely outcome for juveniles convicted of crimes, as opposed to incarceration – an outcome permitted by increasing freedom at state level for judges and other care professionals to make such decisions.

This is an interesting snapshot of justice, delinquent youth and the role of the state in an American context.

Tom Garbett is an associate at Pinsent Masons