Messages from Scholars about History and Culture

Writing in Criminal Justice: The Process

Book Excerpt with Reflection

LaNina Cooke

Excerpt from: Cooke, LaNina N. (2015). Structure Matters: Predicting Juvenile Justice System Behavior. LBF Scholarly Publishing, El Paso.

This book examines the role of ecological structures in the juvenile justice system. From a sociological standpoint, we know that individuals relate to community structures, and that these structures contribute greatly to shared community sentiments. The research reported here considers these factors in an analysis of juvenile justice system behavior. The research is theoretically based, and represents a macro-level analysis addressing the predictive value of the presence of religious establishments, of public housing units, and of retail liquor stores on juvenile justice system assessments of risk, on prosecutorial decisions, and on residential sanctioning. This examination, in comparison to prior relevant analyses, is unique in that it pertains to the actions of juvenile justice system agents as opposed to involving the agents of delinquent activity. Quantitatively, this research offers substantial new insight into the influence of local ecological factors on juvenile justice system outcomes.

There is a plethora of research on juvenile justice, and much of that research focuses upon particular key decision points present throughout the system. Much of this research focuses on the demographic background of offenders rather than examining structural components of the local environments in which juvenile offenders reside (Graham, 2004; Harris, 2007, 2008; Holley, 2006; M. Leiber, Johnson, J., Fox, K. & Lacks, R., 2007; Macdonald, 2003; Meeker, 1992; Rodriguez, 2007; Schulenberg, 2003; Vidal, 2007; Webb, 2006; Wordes, 1994). These structural elements affect both those who live in the communities in which these structures are present, and those who work in supervision occupations and render judgments on the actions of system involved youth. Deeper understanding of how these structures affect the juvenile justice process is called for, especially at this time of growing concern regarding extraordinary rates of racial and ethnic disparity in juvenile justice system involvement.

According to Sampson and Laub (1993), “there are only a handful of quantitative studies that focus on structural level variations with the community or juvenile court as a unit of analysis.” The variables used in previous structural ecological research range from marriage rates (Bossard, 1938) to recidivism (D. Mears, Wang, X., Hay, C., & Bales, W., 2008), with the usual focus of attention being on agents of deviant activity rather than on those who are entrusted with enforcing laws and public policies and deciding the prospects of individuals. When prior studies have involved analyzing aggregates, such as juvenile justice case management processes, they have been carried out in relation to specific individualized structures rather than generalized characteristics. Consequently, the impact of the local social ecology on juvenile justice agents has been largely ignored.

Socioeconomic status is almost always used in the analysis of communities, especially in research considering juvenile crime. In this instance, researchers typically view socioeconomic status in reference to theories that seek to explain why juveniles offend and why particular areas tend to be crime-prone; few studies, in contrast, look at the ecological factors affecting offender risk assessment, prosecutorial discretion, or sanction type imposed upon a finding of culpability. In the case of this research, the latter question is addressed directly reflecting the assumption that environmental structures, as opposed to offender socioeconomic status, affect justice decisions substantially.

The American juvenile justice system is highly heterogeneous, with marked variance across states and each state system operating as a separate judicial, prosecutorial, and law enforcement collaborative entity. This system, in contrast to that in existence for adults, is based on longstanding principles of rehabilitation and decriminalization (Butts, 2001; Frazier, 1999; Kapchik, 2003; Platt, 1977; VanVleet, 1999). Because of the assumed lack of maturity, neurological development still underway, and inability to appreciate the ultimate consequences of their actions, juveniles are thought to be susceptible to reform and redirection toward law-abiding lifestyles. Although rehabilitation remains a key construct in the juvenile justice system, this rehabilitative leaning has given way to a contemporary societal consensus that stresses the importance of public safety. Public safety, which is often thought to be achieved through incapacitation and deterrence, is usually understood as a function of the adult system, with adults seen as the main threats to public order. As a means of promoting public safety, the methods of punishment have been shifted to apply to the juvenile system.

As a means of making the juvenile system bear a closer resemblance to that of the adult system, policy shifts began in 1984 and continued through 1994, with noteworthy legislative changes occurring in nearly all of the states (90%). The modifications reflected the promotion of harsher sanctions, the decreasing of age limits for adult sanctions, the increase of juvenile transfers to the adult system, and the use of mandatory minimums and often punitive sentencing guidelines (Butts, 2001; Fass, 2002; Feld, 2003; Frazier, 1999; D. Mears, 2001; D. Mears, Hay, C., Gertz, M., & Mancini, C., 2007; Rios, 2008; Steiner, 2006; Trépanier, 1999; VanVleet, 1999). In addition to the prioritization o of the adult system, policy shifts began in 1984 and continued through 1994, with noteworthy legislative changes occurring in nearly all of the states (90%). The modifications reflected the promotion of harsher sanctions, the decreasing of age limits for adult sanctions, the increase of juvenile transfers to the adult system, and the use of mandatory minimums and often punitive sentencing guidelines (Butts, 2001; Fass, 2002; Feld, 2003; Frazier, 1999; D. Mears, 2001; D. Mears, Hay, C., Gertz, M., & Mancini, C., 2007; Rios, 2008; Steiner, 2006; Trépanier, 1999; VanVleet, 1999). In addition to the prioritization of public safety over rehabilitation, much of this shift was likely politically-motivated, with lawmakers appealing to the public’s fear of crime, demands for punishment for delinquency and lawbreaking, and a growing feeling that rehabilitation does not prevent crime (Trépanier, 1999). It has been posited that get-tough policies have been actively extended to the juvenile system because of the extensive range of discretion allowed in the work of juvenile court officials. Taken in combination, these developments have given rise to a situation in which the importance of rehabilitation has been reduced and punitive sanctions used enhanced (Harris, 2007; Meeker, 1992).

While the overall delinquency rate in the U.S. has fallen since 1999, that rate is still up 37% in comparison with 1991. Specifically, Florida, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California ranked highest in juvenile violent crime arrests in 2003 and in that same year for every 100,000 juveniles 307 were in custody, with states such as Florida, California, and Indiana being well above the national average. In 2002, nationally 1.6 million delinquency cases were handled, compared to 1.1 million in 1985. Total residential placements of juvenile offenders increased between 1991 and 1999 by 41%, and while a 10% decline was registered between 1999 and 2003, juvenile placements overall were still up 31% as of 2003 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2006).

The juvenile system was intended to sanction youth with individualized justice (Feld, 1999), but previous research has suggested that demographic, mental health, and other group characteristics play a role in the allocation of justice during arrest, disposition, and other decision points (Graham, 2004; Harris, 2007; Holley, 2006; M. Leiber, Johnson, J., Fox, K. & Lacks, R., 2007; Macdonald, 2003; Meeker, 1992; Rodriguez, 2007; Schulenberg, 2003; Vidal, 2007; Webb, 2006; Wordes, 1994). This disproportion is in contrast to the juvenile justice system’s original focus. Considering the upward flow of juveniles entering the system and the focus on public safety, fairness in all phases of the juvenile justice process is paramount. It must be ensured that risk assessments are based on actual likelihood of future offending, and that prosecutions and sanctioning decisions are reflective at least somewhat of a rehabilitative purpose. Risk assessments, prosecutorial decisions, and court sanctions must be in line with fostering positive reengagement and rehabilitation.

Most juvenile justice serving agencies and related social service resource agencies are aware of the systematic flaws persisting within the U.S. justice system. In fact, previous research concerning demographic indicators, particularly race and ethnicity, has led to marked changes in its practices. In 1994, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention mandated that grant-funded programs were to investigate the existence of disproportionate minority confinement, and if it were found to be present, these programs were to demonstrate effective measures to decrease it. This direction was updated in 2002 to include the development of specific plans to intervene, evaluate, and monitor the rates of confinement in agencies with documented racial and ethnic disparities. While these actions have been impactful, still more needs to be done to address issues of disproportionate minority contact within the juvenile justice system, not only from a demographic perspective but also on an ecological level. Previous research defends the need for this area of research, noting that the continued absence of analysis on the impact of ecological factors leads to miscalculations in crime trends, patterns, and juvenile justice system judgments. “To understand crime and violence in this country at all, you have to disaggregate it” (Sherman, 2006).


Expectations from the Field

Criminal justice is one of the areas in which people, many with no experience in the field, tend to have strong opinions. In many ways it feels very polarizing, with people representing a particular side even when reality says otherwise. In writing, it is my job to present readers with the background knowledge of law, policy, theory, and evidence-based material so that they can take on informed opinions. These areas can be summarized as the facts, the assumptions and the outcomes. Since criminal justice is a social science, there’s a bit of contextualizing to do.

I have been writing in the field both academically and professionally for quite a while, and it has always begun with the legal and policy background. These things are documented, have a set timeline, and frame the writing. When I write, I spend a lot of time creating a picture of the foundation, since the rest of the writing grows from this center. I scour journal articles, books, and anything else that can set the stage. The work referenced in this writing was on the role of environment in determining risk assessment and adjudication. The focus was on ecological structures as a function of juvenile justice system behavior. Sounds engaging and fun, right? Superficially it is not, but the contextual background makes it interesting (at least I think so) and affords readers the opportunity to think about criminal justice processes more in depth.

In the mentioned work, I wrote about the laws and policy that frame the juvenile justice system and housing and urban development. This provided the framework of the paper and “tells” the reader that while criminal justice is socially oriented, the foundations are rooted in something perceptible. Once I get the reader comfortable with the overall subject, I throw in a little (or a lot) of theory and previous research. I have found that some readers are not huge fans of theory and reduce it to filler information. The legal and policy background make the theory and research more “palatable.” My goal is not to trick the reader, but to give the him or her information in manageable, logical doses. If the work that I am doing involves the execution of research or the evaluation of policy or a program, I insert it here. This outcome ties it all together and is sort of like the main event. It is the part that I enjoy the most and what the reader wants to read. It is the culmination of sorts.

Purpose and Impact

Regardless of the document, the framework is the same. In academic works it is obvious. What is less obvious is that it appears in other areas that are more professional. I have written for local government, which is outcome driven.   Does the program work? What are the stats? What is the cost–benefit? The outcomes mean nothing if there is no context by way of factual and theoretical content. I have also written opinion pieces. In most cases blog and editorial readers are not too interested in ecological theories or methods. I usually pare down the research-speak and make my work more outcome-heavy. In sum, it is important to know your audience. Who you are writing for is just as important as what you say. I always try to stay relatable and put myself in the position of the reader, with the hope that they will find my work interesting and informative.

The Writing Experience

In my writing, the format is overall straightforward, but the process is quite long and tedious, partly because I want it to represent me well and I want it to reach the reader as I intend. It begins as a giant ramble of random things, sentences, and ideas. This document that you are reading began as a hodgepodge of stuff. After I brainstorm, I write a loose outline and then free write within each subheading, often shifting my thoughts around. I am a jotter. In my work on juvenile justice system behavior, the literature foundation included the background of the juvenile justice system, theory, ecological structures, and decision making. In each area, I jotted points (and random sentences) of the ideas that I wanted to include. After this, I advance-searched for journal articles and books based on the main themes of my outline. I am not a fan of the electronic copy. I much rather prefer to print out the articles and use zillions of pieces of paper. Although this is terrible for the environment, this is the only way that I can function. I do, however, scan the article before printing, which helps a bit. After I print, I highlight, make notes and number the sections that I will include in my paper. Each mark is coordinated with the outline. From here, I start writing in a really casual way. In every pass through of reading my document, I add more, asking myself questions as I write. Someone in my early academic career told me to try to limit the amount of reader confusion by questioning and answering myself. For this work in particular, I combed through dozens of times, asking questions, adding definitions, terms, and previous research, writing all over the document with words, arrows, and letter markings. This part is actually fun for me. It signifies that I am making progress, and it motivates me to keep pushing. This is where I start to be satisfied with my work. I find myself saying, “Damn, this sounds good.” I go through this process until I cannot do it anymore. I press submit and it is out there in the universe.

I have always been very deliberate in my writing, reviewing it over and over again until I have reached the brink. It typically takes me numerous turns in the editing cycle to finally be done. Since I see myself reflected through my work, I am very particular about intent, clarity and direction. This goes back to the purpose of my writing and knowing my audience. Writing a research paper feels different than writing a policy paper or assessment report. Writing for people in the field often leads to me being a lot more particular in that I think the reader will have a higher expectation and will be judgmental and critical. Writing for people outside of the field is a lot more comfortable and casual, where I feel less anxious and, in turn, more open. The editing process, however, is the same.

In writing, I have to feel the groove. I have had college professors who have helped me become more detailed in my writing. In undergrad, I had an English professor who taught me to write using the “Ted Koppel” method. In my memory of his words, a news story is like an upside-down pyramid that works to grow the story, the paper, the research. At the end my writing reflects this. Graduate school taught me how to compartmentalize my work, draw from other disciplines, and edit. My research methods professor assigned a paper on documenting the homeless population by understanding how to count the number of fish. This, above anything else, taught me how to organize my work and to think outside the box.

Time and Effort

When writing my dissertation, I took a while to come up with the perfect topic. Criminal justice is such a vast field with so many possibilities. While my area is policy, there are so many impact areas, from policing to reentry and everything in between. In addition, wrapped up in criminal justice policy are the other social sciences and their connected theories. This makes for difficulty in selecting a topic. After teetering between topics for over a year, a peer commented, “there is no perfect topic, so stop looking.” These eight words completely changed my outlook. From then on, the front-end work became easy. It was a matter of settling on a population of interest and thinking hard on it. In my thought process, I drew from my teaching background in sociology (at the time I was an adjunct in the Sociology department) any my interest in place and environment. I blended these together and settled on the general topic of the impact of place on criminal justice decisions.

This piece started as my dissertation. A few years later, a publisher approached me to turn it into a book. The research was done. All I had to do was change the tense, add a lot more literature, and make it less academic and more reader-friendly. Sounds easy, but in reality, it was tedious and involved a lot of reframing and library searches. I had to change the delivery. As a dissertation, it had to be wordy and “extra.” As a book it had to be casually smart, without all the fancy, statistical talk. The whole process took over a year. I was also working and juggling family, so writing was like a bonus job.

Once it was done, I never looked at it again, until now. In re-reading it, there are parts that I would have worded differently. There is always an edit to make, an article to add, a theory to elaborate on. There is no perfect, which isn’t a bad thing. Social science evolves, grows and has a voice, just as your writing will.


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Processes by LaNina Cooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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