Date of Award

Spring 2002

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

David Finkelhor


This study examines two juvenile justice reform efforts in one state. The first initiative, a detention risk assessment tool, is embedded within the second initiative, a family court pilot project. Detention screening tools have been developed primarily to alleviate detention center overcrowding and to reduce disproportionate minority confinement in those centers. The instrument under analysis limits discretion by judges in the detention decision making process. The second reform effort, family court, is premised on the rehabilitative ideal. In these courts, judges are presumably given wide latitude in deciding cases in order to meet the individual needs of each offender. These two seemingly disparate reform initiatives are examined through two theoretical traditions, borrowing concepts from organizational theory and penal theory.

Family courts are organized much more bureaucratically than the traditional court system, yet their goals are explicitly rehabilitative. Bureaucratic tenets of consistency and predictability are in conflict with rehabilitative tenets of holism and individualism. Analysis of the risk assessment instrument as well as other case processing outcomes is conducted to understand dynamics of family court in relation to dynamics of the traditional court system in this state.

The study population consists of all detainees in four counties in one state over a one-year period (n = 174). Ordinary least squares regression and logistic regression were used to test hypotheses about case processing. Results show that family court is meeting its expressed purpose of rehabilitation on a number of different measures. Consistent with what would be expected from a rehabilitative approach, family court tends to resist the risk assessment instrument more so than the traditional court. Family court also is more likely to order assessments for youth, hold youth in detention for longer periods of time, and less likely to accept plea bargains. In the end, however, there are no differences with regard to sentencing between family court and the traditional court system. This research demonstrates the need to take court structure into account in case processing studies. While family court systems are advocated as the most appropriate structure to address delinquency, this study suggests further investigation of their outputs is needed.