Juvenile delinquency is a serious threat to the current and future safety of American society. Although the results of criminal offences are the same, some would argue that the problem is much more complicated and demands more consideration that adult criminals. That is, the nature and circumstances of juvenile delinquency raise into discussion several main inherent moral and ethical dilemmas:
First, since children and adolescences are much more responsive to environmental pressure, one should carefully consider the motives of a young criminal. For example, a child who cannot afford a status symbol (e.g. fashion brands) would be prone to theft, as he perceives the product as a critical (i.e. a need rather than a want) social barrier. The same holds true for other types of criminal offence such as drug abuse and violence.
Second, minors are typically less experienced; therefore, their perception about good and bad differ from adults, and they are much more sensitive to manipulations. Referring to the defenses in perception between minors and adults, Justice Kennedy noted that “the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest as well that juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence.” (2005)
Third, one must weigh the benefits of punishment and isolation of a criminal against the effects of imprisonment on a teenager, who would, most probably, integrate in a society with a developed criminal culture. It is thus a sound assumption that many of the young prisoners are growing up into a life of crime.
All those factors and others imply that the juvenile justice system should be coherently different from the adult criminal justice system.
The rationale for behind giving special handling with young offenders is the idea of parens patriae (the state as parent). This doctrine suggests that it is the responsibility of the state to protect and nurture children when their parents fail to do so. Therefore, when a minor commits a crime, he should receive a treatment rather than a punishment, and the legislator must make sure that the justice system considers the well—being of the specific offender more deeply than the seriousness of the offence. This approach aims to alter one’s course of criminal behavior and to turn his into a productive citizen in the future.
The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899. Until then, minors above seven years of age were brought to trial in a regular criminal court, although many countries have already operated designated prisons for juvenile offenders. Throughout the following 50 years, the courts have evolved to a significantly different form from the rest of the system. Most importantly was the multidimensional approach towards the child, tailoring rehabilitation programs which best fit his specific situation. In some cases, however, young offenders were tried in criminal courts, as some still happens today.
However, this approach did not prove itself as an effective solution for the rising crime rates among youth. As a result, the contemporary juvenile justice system is similar in many ways to criminal courts. Snyder & Sickmund provide an overview the most important changes, which have brought about the current situation of the system: (2006)
The Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act of 1968 and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, both stress the importance of separation between noncriminal (status) offenders and those who are accused with criminal offences in terms of legal treatment. In addition, the Acts call for deinstitutionalization of those “light” offenders and demand that convicted juvenile will be removed from adult jails and prisons.
Further changes in legislation defined a strict line towards young offenders. This approach involved, among others, reduced confidentiality for trial hearings (which characterized the traditional juvenile justice system) and contextual-based referral for criminal courts and adult correctional sanctioning (in sharp contrast to the 1974 Act). That is, age alone is no longer the only parameter for the type of court and the subsequent procedures and punishment methods.
These changes and others, which took place during the 1990s, have positively affected the number of crimes committed by youth and reduced the number of juvenile murderers. Since the mid-1990s, which is considered as all-time period of juvenile imprisonment, the number of inmates under 18 years of age has dropped in incremental rate, in terms of both new admissions and proportion of the general inmates’ population (Hartney, 2006).
Nonetheless, despite the positive results of the punitive policies during the last decade, other findings may imply that this line may worsen the situation in the long run. Most of the criticism refers to the tendency to handle juvenile cases in the adult criminal justice and lockup systems, which may lead to increased criminal activities rather than reducing it.
One major indicator for the effectiveness of the policy is its ability to reduce violent offences, which accounts for 62% of all juvenile convictions (Hartney, 2006). Summarizing the view of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, McGowan et al. indicate several findings, which warn that “transferring juveniles to the adult justice system generally increases, rather than decreases, rates of violence among transferred youth” (2007).
In conclusion, although attitudes toward offenders are ambivalent, it seems that the general approach is still supportive towards retaining the punitive policies of the 1990s (Benekos & Merlo, 2008). Nevertheless, we should rethink and adjust the policies in reference to empirical evidence, in order to achieve the highest effectiveness of preventing juvenile offenders to lifetime criminals.
- Peter J. Benekos Alida V. Merlo (2008). Juvenile Justice: The Legacy of Punitive Policy. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 6, pp. 28-46.
- Hartney, C. (2006). Youth under age 18 in the adult criminal justice system. Washington, DC: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
- McGowan, A., Hahn, R., Liberman, A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M. Johnson, R., et al. (2007). Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles from the Juvenile Justice System to the Adult Justice System: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(4S), pp. S7-S28. Retrieved June 16, 2009 from http://www.edjj.org/focus/TransitionAfterCare/AJPM_TransferReview.pdf
- Snyder, H. N. & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report. Retrieved June 16, 2009 from http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/NR2006.pdf
- US Supreme Court. (2005). Roper v. Simmons. Retrieved June 16, 2009 from http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/pdf/03-633P.ZO