March 28, 2013

Evaluating juveniles: Grisso's classic updated for new era

In the 1990s a moral panic swept through the United States over juvenile "super-predators," ruthless youngsters devoid of empathy or morality who would terrorize the good citizenry -- raping, looting and murdering with abandon. Although the hysterical, racially coded predictions proved unfounded (the spike in violent crime was just a historical blip on the radar screen), politicians passed harsh new laws that set the U.S. apart from all other nations in the magnitude of penal warehousing of children.

At the pinnacle of this frenzied "get-tough era" in juvenile justice, the eminent forensic psychologist Tom Grisso authored Forensic Evaluation of Juveniles, a groundbreaking text that guided practitioners into the burgeoning niche of psychological evaluations in delinquency cases.

Now, in a major overhaul of that influential 1998 text, Grisso writes optimistically of a new trend in juvenile justice that he labels the "developmental era." Social science evidence about adolescent brain development and social maturation will contribute to greater judicial and societal recognition that much delinquency is time-limited, he believes. Although this new direction comes too late for the youths and families shattered by the get-tough policies of the past few decades, Grisso hopes that forensic psychology can help judges, probation officers and policy makers understand the potential of rehabilitation for today's wayward youth.

Photo from Richard Ross's Juvenile In Justice photography project
I'm a little less sanguine about a newer, gentler era. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, life without parole for crimes other than murder, and mandatory sentences of life without parole for murder.* But such reversals are a drop in the bucket so long as the punitive architecture remains in place that allows, for example, prosecutorial "direct-files" of juvenile cases to adult courts. We are living in an increasingly repressive culture. About 70,000 young people -- disproportionately poor and non-white -- are currently incarcerated in the U.S., many serving ridiculously long sentences that give them no chance of ever leading productive lives. 

Grisso's practical guide strikes a humanistic tone, refreshing in a field increasingly infiltrated by a gloomy, pathologizing, technocratic worldview. The award-winning director of the Law-Psychiatry Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for example cautions evaluators to avoid simple tallies of actuarial risk factors in informing the court of a youth's risk. Rather, evaluators should understand and incorporate the two broad, and complementary, theories of delinquency: The biological and personality-oriented theories of psychology, and the social-environmental theories of criminology, such as the notion of "drift" into delinquency. Evaluators should also understand the individual child's context, and the factors that contribute not only to pathology but also to resilience in the face of adversity.

Perhaps the most radical departure from the first edition is a newfound emphasis on understanding racial, ethnic and cultural factors, historically a major blind spot in forensic psychology. With non-white children comprising the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated in America, this principle cannot be overstated. Grisso addresses the barriers to even basic communication that will become all the more challenging as young immigrants arrive from far-flung lands, many carrying inside them the weight of untold traumas. Although he proffers no facile solutions, he preaches greater awareness of cultural blinders and of the inherent limitations of forensic tools that were not normed on diverse populations.

Disappointingly, given this humanistic tenor and discussion of racial and cultural issues, Grisso soft-pedals criticism of the growing practice of labeling juveniles as psychopaths. He describes evidence for the validity of the psychopathy construct in juveniles as "mixed," yet omits mention of the calamitous -- and often self-fulfilling -- consequences to youths when the psychopathy label is introduced in court.

Like the first edition, this is a practical manual that provides a clearly written historical overview of the field for novice practitioners, and useful review material for more seasoned juvenile evaluators. Chapters address specific types of evaluations, including competency to stand trial, waiver of Miranda rights, risk assessment, waiver to adult court, and rehabilitation and treatment recommendations. New statutes, case law, scientific findings and assessment methods are interwoven throughout, making this an indispensable addition to the juvenile evaluator's bookshelf.

If you found this review helpful, I would appreciate your taking a moment click to visit my Amazon review (HERE) and click on the "YES" button at the bottom ("this review was helpful"). This helps boost the review's ranking. Thanks in advance. 

*The cases are Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), and Miller v. Alabama (2012), respectively.

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