What Does it Take to Become a Juvenile Justice Officer?

Learn about working with juvenile offenders in this exclusive profile.

What attracted you to juvenile justice?

juvenile offender waiting to talk to his  juvenile justice officer

Jael M. Marx
Correctional Treatment Coordinator (Sex Offender Specialist)
Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration
Over 7 years in the field

I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from Saint Martin's College. Toward the end of my academic career, I became engaged by the history and present trends in juvenile justice. I started working as a part-time, on-call detention specialist for a county juvenile detention center and, within days, I knew I found my calling.

I realized that these were high-need children. The work was inspirational and, however small the gains, rewarding. Hoping to experience other county systems, I took a second job as a detention officer in a nearby county and continued my hands-on education. I found that each teenager was unique, yet I became increasingly aware of many similarities. They each needed an opportunity for improvement, a chance to get back on their feet.

How did you end up as a juvenile justice officer?

Working in a secure facility at the county level, most youth stayed only briefly. It was hard to set up a consistent program with a revolving door of clients. I wanted to do more, but especially work for longer stints of time with individual teenagers.

The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration gave me a place to do that. By joining JRA as a Counselor Assistant, I would have time to work with teenage felons on parole for anywhere from 12 weeks to 3 years, depending on their committing offense. I went on to work as a parole counselor, then a residential counselor in a secure state facility, and then returned to a parole counselor position in a different region.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I'm responsible for overseeing and monitoring sex offender treatment with contracted providers and direct service for youth in ten counties. I also act as a community liaison for the region, educating the community in sex offender matters, addressing public concern and representing our agency at several law enforcement committees.

Six of us hold this community position in the state, with 4 others with the same title in our secure facilities. We meet monthly as a team to address sex offender issues and best practices. We discuss particularly hard cases and informally review potential civil commitments.

Many days I'm responding to urgent calls from neighbors, schools and families. It's hard to stick to a set schedule, there's a lot of juggling and prioritizing. As a resource for parole staff on sex offender laws, regulations and parole requirements, I serve our own staff as much as I do the public. I also work to answer and address family concerns.

What are some of the difficulties you face?

Working with these young people, I became poignantly aware of the difficulties and obstacles facing paroled, teenage sex offenders. These youth were often ostracized, labeled and mistreated by their home communities. I became protective of this population. Unfortunately our sex offender laws not only affect our adjudicated youth, but also their families and neighborhoods. Sometimes the victim is a member of the family as well. It is a very frightening journey for a family attempting to heal and move forward. Of course, we also work with and participate as much as possible with victim concerns and victim advocates.

What do you most enjoy about the work?

You need to be prepared to work in a profession that does not offer instant gratification. As in any social work, you need to be patient, compassionate and invested in your clientele.

Each person needs to be treated as unique and valuable, regardless of their offense, current conduct or attitude. You also need to be firm, consistent and creative. While the juvenile justice system is a bureaucracy, you need to think outside of the box when dealing with juveniles. Above all, never forget that they are children who all have the capacity for change.