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Juvenile Violence: Risks of Blended Sentencing and a Viable Alternative to Incarceration


It has been fairly well-established that being tough on crime, in and of itself, is expensive and that it does not necessarily reduce crime or contribute to a lower rate of recidivism. One scholar has gone so far as to argue that the “lock-’em-up strategy is not working. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect: It actually makes the rate of certain crimes mushroom” (Elikann, 1996, p. 6). Incarceration models have not reduced violent crime rates, with very minor exceptions, and they have not reduced criminal behavior among youth. Experts have argued that the lower crime rates and reduced rates of recidivism hailed by law and order politicians have been greatly skewed by demographic realities. Specifically, as baby boomers age and occupy a larger percentage of the population, the primary crime-committing population decreases in raw terms. This makes it appear that incarceration may work when in fact smaller numbers of youth are committing and recommitting violent crimes more than ever before. This at-risk population is typically younger, both juveniles and legal adults, and the incarceration debates involve this group most directly.

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This paper will demonstrate how juvenile violence is increasingly being transferred to adult courts through the enactment and enforcement of blended-sentencing statutes in states across the country. The social risk, refusing to treat juveniles like juveniles, is that juvenile violence is being increasingly ignored and that society is simply giving up on its youth by transferring violent offenders to adult courts. This problem, however, can be remedied and this paper will present and discuss one alternative program (Family Functional Therapy) to incarceration through blended sentencing that has proven to have become enormously successful and cost-effective in reducing violent crime and recidivism rates among the juvenile population.

Blended Sentencing and State Sentencing Guidelines for Juveniles

Many states have simply given up on trying to control violent crime committed by juveniles. The result has been a national trend toward treating juveniles as adults. The consequences, mixing juveniles with adult prison populations and forgoing viable treatment options, are devastating to many of these juveniles. This trend is known as blended sentencing. In California, with respect to violent juvenile crime, a sort of compromise has been reached with respect to blended sentencing. This compromise depends on whether the juvenile is tried in a juvenile court or an adult court with criminal jurisdiction (“Blended Sentencing: California Transfer Provisions”, 2007, p. 2).

When a juvenile is tried in an adult court the judge is vested with some discretion regarding the sanction or the imposition of a criminal sentence. The basic rule is that, in an adult court, the judge may decide whether to impose a juvenile disposition or an adult sanction. This initial decision, whether to proceed in a juvenile setting or an adult court, is initially determined by the prosecutor. The prosecutor may file a motion to transfer a juvenile to an adult court if it is believed that the juvenile’s age and offense make treatment and care in a juvenile facility likely to be unsuccessful. A presumptive waiver to an adult court is created by sentencing guidelines for juveniles that is triggered by certain offense categories, prior offenses, and age levels. Juvenile violence is therefore often classified as a presumptive basis for transferring a juvenile to an adult criminal court. Although a presumptive waiver must be based on clear evidence, and usually involves a fitness hearing to protect the juvenile’s rights and to allow a challenge to any of the evidence presented, the stark reality is that violence tends to result in less rights and less protections for juveniles. A judge may issue a reverse waiver, returning the juvenile to juvenile proceedings, but once a juvenile is convicted in an adult criminal court that juvenile is thereafter treated as an adult. Blended sentencing thus represents a growing trend to deal with juvenile violence by simply passing the buck to adult courts.

Juvenile Violence: Classical and Positivist Approaches and an Illustration

Fairly recently, in 2005, a sixteen year old was convicted of a violent crime for his actions in an aggravated robbery. The juvenile received a determinate sentence of 49 months in a juvenile facility; thereafter, TYC filed a formal request asking that this juvenile be transferred to an adult facility in order to complete the sentence. The juvenile received a hearing, but the judge ordered the transfer to adult criminal jurisdiction. The issue presented was whether the judge abused his discretion. The juvenile argued that the judge did abuse his discretion because (1) he had achieved certain academic goals, (2) he had enrolled in and participated in a vocational training program, (3) he had completed a chemical dependency class successfully, and (4) he had clean conduct marks from the juvenile facility. On appeal, it was determined that the judge did not abuse his discretion because the nature of the offense and the juvenile’s background did not persuade the judge that adult criminal jurisdiction was inappropriate (“Indeterminate Sentence Transfer Hearing”, 2005, p. 3). A more careful reading of the case history suggests that juvenile violence, even an isolated incident, was enough to transfer this teenager to an adult facility despite persuasive evidence that treatment was both viable and working.

This case, and its ultimate disposition, illustrates how different theories of juvenile justice are applied in the real world. Classical theories tend to treat individuals, whether juveniles or adults, as rational beings. This means that actions are the product of considered thought and free will. This type of theory thus holds that all individuals must be held responsible for their actions. In a criminal context, this inevitably leads to policies and decisions which emphasize deterrence, the incapacitation of offenders, and even retribution (Onwudiwe, 2004, p. 154). A second school of thought, known generally as positivism, tends to view individuals as the product of many factors. Some of these factors are biological, cultural, and environmental. The goal becomes rehabilitation and treatment rather than incapacitation or retribution (Onwudiwe, 2004, p.155). In the instant case, it would appear that a classical theory prevailed. The juvenile was the product of a broken home and had tried to behave well in the juvenile facility. He was nevertheless transferred. Incapacitation prevailed over further treatment and rehabilitation.

What emerges from even a cursory review of the literature, with respect to juvenile violence, is a reemergence of classical theories that have become manifest in a criminal justice paradigm known as blended sentencing. Rather than addressing the root causes of juvenile violence, and pursuing treatment and rehabilitation models, states are simply giving up and transferring juveniles to adult criminal courts. This drastic shift is unnecessary; indeed, recent research demonstrates through empirical evidence that there are better ways to deal with and remedy an increasing state of juvenile violence than simply transferring juveniles to adult courts.

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An Alternative to Blended Sentencing: Family Functional Therapy

Recent research has more persuasively demonstrated that Family Functional Therapy is a cost-effective program for preventing youth violence and also for decreasing recidivism rates among at-risk youth. The clinical intervention model incorporated into the Family Functional Therapy approach is easily adaptable to a variety of circumstances, it produces consistent results even amidst ethnic diversity, and there exists a wealth of research data demonstrating its benefits. The unfortunate reality, however, is that for a variety of reasons this approach has not yet been widely embraced by the juvenile justice system despite its demonstrated effectiveness. In order to argue why this model should be embraced more widely, this portion of the paper will examine the program background, its clinical intervention model, and the evidence-based practices upon which it relies.

Program Background: Analytical Framework and Family Functional Therapy

As an initial matter, it is important to note that the incidence and the prevention of youth violence have been extensively studied. There is a wealth of academic literature, including thousands and thousands of empirical studies, attempting to determine the root causes of youth violence and the best types of interventions and responses. A number of risk factors have been identified and this information has been used by academics and policy makers in an attempt to prevent youth violence before it occurs and to respond to youth violence after it has occurred. Generally speaking,

The relationship between youth delinquency and family functioning has been well documented in the literature. Negative parent-child relationships in general and poor parenting skills in particular have been identified as significant risk factors for criminal behavior in youth. More serious family dysfunction, such as parental criminality and family violence, has also been associated with subsequent delinquency and adult criminality. Consequently, it has been assumed that effective intervention with the family leads to reductions in the delinquent behavior of youth. Traditionally, this intervention has assumed the form of family counseling once a youth has been officially processed by the youth justice system. (Latimer, 2001, p. 237)

The family, therefore, is an important social and institutional context within which youth violence and violence prevention must be analyzed. Negative impacts resulting in youth violence have been traced to family relationships characterized as generally negative and as seriously dysfunctional. This is important, this broad range of family impact, because the research demonstrates that youth violence may result from a broad range of family relationship typologies rather than simply from those family relationships characterized as seriously dysfunctional. It is also important because comparatively mild forms of juvenile delinquency may evolve into more serious incidents of violence. The family is thus an important focus for those experts that advocate different types of interventions, and it is within this analytical framework that Family Functional Therapy must be considered.

The Family Functional Therapy model is a multi-layered theoretical perspective which “has adopted an integrative stance that stresses functionality of the family, the therapy, and the clinical model” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) Thus, rather than relying on strict theoretical models or perspectives, this approach instead attempts to address youth violence by employing a variety of techniques and by proceeding in ways that have proven empirically successful in the past. This model proceeds by focusing on what is known as family relational systems analysis in which the family is the primary focus. This type of analysis is concerned with a particular family’s functionality, both in terms of positive types of behavior and negative types of behavior, and interprets these good and bad behavioral types as being predictable illustrations of the family relational systems model. The ultimate objective of this evidence-based approach to youth violence is a positive outcome. The precise nature of the positive outcome depends on the circumstances of the particular case. It can therefore be seen that the family is the fundamental focus, that predictable behavioral patterns arise as a result of different types of family relationships, and that academics and policy makers are seeking to use these predictable behavioral patterns in order to devise policies and treatment programs with respect to youth violence.

What is significant about the Family Functional Therapy paradigm is that it is essentially an evidence-based practice. This means that, rather then relying on unsubstantiated opinions or politically-motivated opinions, this approach instead limits itself to methods that have been proven to be empirically effective through careful research methods. In this respect, for example, it has been noted that “The developers and replicators of Functional Family Therapy have recognized that solutions require an integration of high quality science, tested theoretical principles, and extensive clinical experience in pursuit of specific functional goals.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) This evidence-based approach, in short, is based on initial research tests that are then repeated or replicated in order to determine the effectiveness of different types of interventions and the exact factors that affect youth violence.

Family Functional Therapy has three fundamental objectives. First, this type of therapeutic approach seeks to alter or otherwise change the negative behavior at both the family level and at the individual level. This truly reflects the integrated nature of the approach, the fact that interventions target the family at a macro-level and family members at a micro-level, and also reflects the multi-layered nature of family relational systems analysis. Second, when youth violence has occurred, this type of approach seeks to moderate or eliminate the violent and destructive behaviors. Rather than simply adopting a narrow focus, however, this goal desires to reduce the broader “personal, societal, and economic devastation that results from the continuation or exacerbation of the various disruptive behavior disorders of youth.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) Finally, this approach also seeks to accomplish the aforementioned objectives in a cost-efficient manner. This is a practical consideration given that fact that financial resources and human resources are a scarce commodity when compared to the larger phenomenon of youth violence.

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Consistent with its evidence-based orientation, Family Functional Therapy has adhered to a particularly strict step-by-step clinical process. The therapeutic approach, in short, is constantly being reviewed both in terms of the process itself as well as with respect to the desired outcomes. To this end, as has been noted by a team of leading scholars, Family Functional Therapy has “matured into a clinical intervention model with systematic training, supervision, and process and outcome assessment components all directed at enhancing the delivery of FFT in local communities.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) It is the nature of this clinical intervention model and its attendant characteristics that are of primary interest to academics and policy makers advocating social change in the way juvenile violence is viewed and addressed.

The Clinical Intervention Model

There is a general state of agreement among experts that the Family Functional Therapy clinical intervention model has been an extraordinary success in practice. It has been argued, for example, that “Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a well documented family prevention and intervention program which has been applied successfully to a wide range of problem youth and their families in various contexts.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) These successes have been reported with reference to certain adolescents characterized as being at-risk. This target population typically ranges from eleven to eighteen years of age; this is precisely the age of the juveniles being sentenced to adult prisons pursuant to the aforementioned blended sentencing laws. It is also this target group of adolescents that is being addressed within the larger family context.

The actual intervention itself is of a relatively short-term duration, ranging from eight to thirty hours depending of the severity of the case. When determinations are made that a case is not particularly serious, for example, the intervention ranges from about eight to twelve hours in total. When the cases are determined to be of a more serious nature, on the other hand, the intervention ranges from about twenty-six to thirty hours. The duration is therefore rather limited in time, given the aforementioned cost-effectiveness objectives, and depends on the seriousness of the case.

One of the main attractions associated with Family Functional Therapy, in addition to its evidence-based nature, is that it has proven to have been a fairly easy model to apply in the real world. There are discrete phases, clearly articulated objectives, and suggested techniques. There are three main phases or stages with respect to Family Functional Therapy. The first phase relates to the need to engage and to motivate the members of the family. This involves building trust, breaking down barriers, and trying to create an atmosphere in which individual opinions and personal characteristics will be tolerated and understood within the context of the family and the therapeutic intervention. There is also the hope, that by increasing what has been referred to as an expectation for change, that this phase will inspire the momentum necessary to move to the next stage. The next phase refers to actual modifications or changes in behavior and behavioral patterns. This is where the carefully crafted expectations of change manufactured in phase one become more concretely manifest in the form of behavior. The third phase has been characterized as a type of family case management and it has been described as being “guided by individualized family functional needs, their interaction with environmental constraints and resources, and the alliance with the therapist.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) These three phases, within the aforementioned time frames, have encapsulated the fundamental nature of Family Functional Therapy.

Evidence of Effectiveness

It is within this context that research has and continues to be carried out in an effort to determine the effectiveness of Family Functional Therapy both generally and specifically. It is generally agreed, as a point of evidentiary departure, that “The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place.” (Greenwood, 2008, p.185) but also that “Although more than ten years of solid evidence is now available on evidence-based programs, only about 5 percent of youth who should be eligible participate in these programs.” (Greenwood, 2008, p. 186) The cruel irony is that although many of these programs have proven successful they have not been made widely available to those in need of Family Functional Therapy interventions. Despite this lack of availability at the current time, however, it has also been observed that many states and local governments have expressed a keen interest in adopting and implementing these types of programs on a wider scale. This keen interest, in turn, is motivated by the empirical evidence derived from the therapeutic experiences with the more limited target population. This trend has been encouraged by the fact that

these are programs that have been developed by a single investigator or team over a number of years and proven through careful replications, supported by millions of dollars in federal grants. The generic methods are identified by meta-analysis and represent the efforts of independent investigators, each testing particular versions of the method. The brand name programs have met the criteria established by various review groups for identifying proven programs. (Greenwood, 2008, p.191)

A recent summary of the available research discusses four experimental trials

involving Family Functional Therapy and demonstrates that these blueprint models outperformed other models. The first interesting finding was that “None of the four FFT evaluations found negative effects, and three are well toward the upper end of the distribution.” (Greenwood, 2008, p.193) If not conclusive, these initial findings are very encouraging. They are encouraging because this blueprint model achieves better results and in none of the cases did this model yield negative results. Despite these promising findings, as recently as 2008, it has been sadly observed that

Juvenile justice options in many communities remain mired in the same old tired options of custodial care and community supervision. It is as if the major research accomplishments of the past decade had never happened. (Greenwood, p.191)

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One series of promising studies examined whether Family Functional Therapy remained an effective intervention model when applied to different ethic groups. One of these studies, the most comprehensive, took place in Clark County, Nevada where “referred adolescents are roughly 30 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic/Latino (mostly Mexican American), and just under 50 percent European American with a few American Indian and Asian American youth.” (Alexander & Barton et al, 1998, n.p.) There was a very real fear that results might vary between and among different ethnic groups; surprisingly, however the Family Functional Therapy interventions exceeded expectations and there were no significant differences reported along ethnic lines. These findings were replicated in similarly designed research studies carried out in other counties. In addition to preventing youth violence, an additional study found that Family Functional Therapy achieved other objectives with respect to cost-effectiveness. One study, carried out in Washington state, compared the intervention costs and the costs associated with the construction of two new prisons and concluded that “many evidence-based programs can produce savings on the order of five to ten times their cost.” (Greenwood, 2008, p.194) These are rather extraordinary cost savings and demonstrate that in addition to preventing violence, Family Functional Therapy can also be implemented in an efficient manner that saves public resources in the long run.

Finally, with respect to recidivism and youth violence, one research study has attempted to assess the success of Family Functional Therapy on a larger scale by engaging in what is known as a meta-analysis. Basically, this is a statistical research technique that is applied to a collection of research studies rather than to one particular research study. The goals are to identify trends on a larger scale and to see whether this type of meta-analysis will yield data that is different from the more specific studies. It has been argued in the academic world, for example, that “meta-analytic reviews go beyond the traditional reviews in the degree to which they are more systematic, more explicit, more exhaustive, and more quantitative.” (Latimer, 2001, p. 237) One such analysis examined thirty-five individual research project, paying particular attention to the impact of family interventions on the recidivism rates of youthful offenders.

Indeed, it was found that family interventions based on the Family Functional Therapy model were far more successful in reducing the incidence of repeat offenses by the target population. The differences between the groups that benefited from family interventions and those that did not was statistically significant on a consistent basis; indeed, it was determined from this meta-analysis that

Compared to the comparison/control groups who received traditional non-family focused interventions, offenders in the treatment groups were significantly more successful at remaining crime-free during the follow-up periods (Latimer, 2001, p. 237)

What emerges from a review of the literature, both that premised on individual studies and collective studies, is the fact that Family Functional Therapy is an effective model for preventing youth violence and also an effective model for reducing adolescent recidivism. It outperforms other models significantly and it has also proven to be an extraordinarily cost-effective program that can easily be applied to a variety of situations.


In the final analysis, it is a tremendous shame that Family Functional Therapy has not been more widely embraced and adopted as a method for dealing with the prevention of youth violence. There is little doubt among academics, to be sure, that this approach prevents juvenile violence in a very cost-effective manner. While it is a good sign that some states and local governments are expressing interest in this approach, the fact is that the pace has been too slow. The time has come to address youth violence more urgently and Family Functional Therapy has thus far proven the most effective type of approach. Blended sentencing is not about positive social change.


Alexander, J., Barton, C., Gordon, D., Grotpeter, J., Hansson, K., Harrison, R., Mears, S., Mihalic, S., Parsons, B., Pugh, C., Schulman, S., Waldron, H., & Sexton, T. (1998). Functional Family Therapy: Blueprints for Violence Prevention, Book Three Blueprints for Violence Prevention Series (D.S. Elliott, Series Editor). Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado.

Alexander, J., & Sexton, T. (Dec. 2000). Family Functional Therapy. Juvenile Justice Bulletin: Family Strengthening Series. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Blended Sentencing: California Transfer Provisions, as amended through the 2007 legislative sessions. State Juvenile Justice Profiles.Web.

Elikann, P. T. (1996). The Tough-On-Crime Myth: Real Solutions to Cut Crime. New York: Insight Books. Web.

Greenwood, P. (2008). Prevention and Intervention Programs for Juvenile Offenders. The Future of Children, 18(2), 185+. Web.

Indeterminate Sentence Transfer Hearing: trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering child transferred to TDCJ to complete sentence. [In the Matter of C.F.] (05-4-17). Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. Web.

Latimer, J. (2001). A Meta-Analytic Examination of Youth Delinquency, Family Treatment and Recidivism. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(2), 237.

Onwudiwe, I. D. (2004, October). Theoretical Perspectives on Juvenile Delinquency: Root Causes and Control. Corrections Today, 66, 153.

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StudyCorgi. "Juvenile Violence: Risks of Blended Sentencing and a Viable Alternative to Incarceration." November 3, 2021.


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