In 1999, the United States marked the 100th anniversary of the official founding of a separate juvenile justice system, but questions about the structure, necessity, and efficacy of the present system made the anniversary anything but an occasion for celebration. Today, dissatisfaction with the current system remains profound and pervasive. Among politicians and policy-makers who have adopted a "get-tough" attitude toward crime and delinquency, the system is denounced for failing to be sufficiently harsh and retributive toward youthful offenders, and for failing to hold young offenders accountable for their actions. Among advocates for children and youth, the system is attacked for failing to meet the needs of youngsters, many of whom suffer from psychological or educational problems, and many of whom have grown up under conditions of poverty, abuse, and neglect. And among the general public, the system is seen as an abysmal failure in fulfilling its mandate to enhance public safety, deter juvenile crime, and rehabilitate offenders.
At least some of the justice system's shortcomings derive from the absence of an informed understanding of child and adolescent development among a large number of juvenile justice practitioners and policy-makers. Many of the basic premises of the juvenile justice system are grounded, both implicitly and explicitly, in a set of assumptions about the immaturity of youth and the inherent developmental differences between juveniles and adults. But the popular tendency to view and treat juvenile offenders as if they had the maturity of adults-as reflected in the "criminalization" of delinquency that has occurred during the past decade, in the widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies in schools and communities, and in the growing number of young offenders who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system-suggests a movement toward a less, not more, enlightened perspective on young people.
Most observers, regardless of their political stripe, agree that a critical reexamination of the juvenile justice system-its practices, its institutions, and its rationale-is urgently needed. In order for such a reexamination to be profitable, however, it must be based on a solid foundation of sound science and legal scholarship. The overarching goals of the Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice are to help build this foundation and convey it to practitioners, policy-makers and the public at large, whose support is crucial to meaningful reform. The Network works to achieve these goals through the critical analysis of juvenile justice policies and practices, the design and implementation of new research on adolescent development and juvenile justice, and the communication of the results of these activities to policy-makers, practitioners, journalists, and other social scientists and legal scholars.