While changing terminology in the juvenile code may seem inconsequential, words matter. That’s why Youth, Rights & Justice proposed and supports SB 436 and the changes in language it makes to the juvenile code. Right now, youth who commit crimes are labeled as “youth offenders” forever. Even if they are rehabilitated the term “youth offender” sticks with them into adulthood.
Labeling theory suggests that the way people act is influenced significantly by the way other members of society label them. A label of “deviant,” “delinquent”, or “youth offender” can affect the way in which young people come to define themselves and how society views them, thus influencing their future behaviors and dictating the social roles they can assume, even after exiting the juvenile justice system.1
This bill eliminates the negative connotation of “youth offender” and replaces the term with “adjudicated youth”, a more accurate and less harmful way to describe youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. Although this is a small change, it makes a significant impact in the language of the juvenile code.
SB 436 is consistent with a positive youth development approach to working with youth. This research-based model recognizes and enhances youth strengths, supports positive growth and development, and acknowledges autonomy and individuality. Positive youth development strategies are widely used by youth-serving organizations including the Oregon Youth Authority and Multnomah County Juvenile Department.2 At YRJ, we believe strongly in finding ways to bring humanity and empathy to the systems in which we work. Small shifts in language can be hugely impactful in helping our clients, and the greater community, find new perspectives on juvenile justice.
1Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (February 2017) citing to Dick, Andrew J., Dan J. Pence, Randall M. Jones, and H. Reed Geertsen. 2004. “The Need for Theory in Assessing Peer Courts.” American Behavioral Scientist 47:1448–61, https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/media/document/diversion_programs.pdf.
2 See https://www.oregon.gov/oya/Publications/AtAGlance-PHD.pdf and https://multco.us/dcj-juvenile/community-healing-initiative-chi.