Every state has a juvenile justice system in place, as does the U.S. Department of Justice. Specialized justice systems for minors in date to the end of the 19th century, when activists in Chicago established a separate court focused on rehabilitating children who moved through the court system. Today’s juvenile justice systems operate much on this same premise. Although the juvenile justice system has many advocates, including juvenile defense lawyers, child psychologists and former juvenile offenders, the system also has numerous critics. Some of these critics think that the system does not adequately serve young offenders and aim to see it reformed, while others hold the position that criminals should be punished, regardless of their age. These critics are typically in favor of trying young defendants as adults and sentencing them to adult correctional facilities.
The Juvenile Justice Model
It is important to understand a few of the key differences and similarities between the juvenile justice system and the adult system. In both, the defendant has the right to an attorney, the right to avoid self-incrimination and the right to cross-examine witnesses. And, the court must find the offender guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to convict him, regardless of age. However, juvenile offenders do not have the right to a trial by jury. Rather, their cases are heard in private by judges. Other differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems include:
- Different terminology: In many states, young offenders are not convicted, they are adjudicated, and instead of being sentenced, they are given disposition orders.
- Lenient punishment: Juvenile courts typically are more lenient when determining appropriate dispositions. Options include juvenile detention centers, home confinement, probation and placement with a relative or a foster home.
Pros and Cons of Juvenile Detention Centers
Juvenile detention centers, like adult correctional facilities, vary in security levels and conditions. In a juvenile detention center, there is a greater emphasis on academic instruction and programs that teach young offenders new thought and behavior strategies to help them avoid committing future offenses.
A few of the documented benefits of juvenile detention centers include:
- protection from physical and sexual abuse by keeping them apart from adult offenders
- rehabilitation through psychological counseling, substance addiction treatment and access to education
- structure and routine to facilitate rehabilitation
- specialized care to specific populations, like female offenders and survivors of sexual abuse
Critics point to some drawbacks in juvenile detention centers:
- Adolescents lose their connections with loved ones and regress academically when they are away from home.
- Detention centers foster institutionalization.
- Juveniles who serve time in detention centers are more likely to be incarcerated as adults.
- Approximately 75 percent of youth detained in centers are not considered public safety threats.
Pros and Cons of Abolishing the Juvenile Court System
Currently, there is no uniform juvenile court system in the United States. The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act provides rules and procedures for local and state courts to follow when working with juvenile offenders, but each state imposes additional requirements. For example, cases involving defendants age 17 and younger are heard in juvenile court in 44 states, whereas five states cap the maximum age for a defendant in juvenile court at 16. And, in many states, it is possible for individuals 17 and under to be tried as adults under certain circumstances.
Parties in favor of abolishing the juvenile justice system pose the following arguments:
- Often, juvenile offenders are released from detention centers when they turn 18 or 21, regardless of the typical incarceration time for their crimes.
- Regardless of the offender's age, the victim still suffered; rehabilitation is not justice for the victim.
- The current system is a revolving door that enables a lifestyle that often leads to adult convictions.
Arguments against abolishing the juvenile court system include:
- The adolescent brain cannot regulate emotions and understand consequences like an adult brain, so should not be subjected to the same punishments.
- Incarcerated minors tend to repress memories of their crimes, rather than feel remorse for them.
- Rehabilitating young offenders benefits all of society because it enables them to live productive lives after release.
The juvenile justice system, like the adult justice system, has its flaws. These include racial disparities in incarceration rates and long wait times for court dates. Although it is not perfect, it does strive to serve the specific needs of young offenders.