Deciding What To Do With Juvenile Offenders Criminology Essay

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The decision on what to do with juvenile offenders when they have committed a crime has become an increasingly controversial issue. With an increase in juvenile crime there has been a parallel increase in the number of children who have been tried and convicted in adult courts. In the year 1985, 3,400 minors were sentenced to state prisons and by 1997 this number more than doubled to 7,400 youths. (McCormick) On average there are over 200,000 juvenile cases heard each year in adult courts and in 2005, 7,000 youngsters called adult prisons "Home". (McCrea) In 1899, Chicago Illinois opened the first juvenile court in the belief that rehabilitation should be the alternative to punishment when dealing with juveniles. (McCrea) The goal was to protect youngsters and prevent them from becoming one of the 7,000 children forced to live among hardened criminals in adult facilities. The point is that no child should ever have to face trial in an adult justice system.

There is a reason why we people under the age of 17 are considered children and that's because they are less mature than those we call adults. Society denies children the ability to buy cigarettes or a pack of beer, it denies them the right to vote, drive a car, sign legal documents, serve in the military or run for office positions and yet when a something truly monstrous is committed by one of these children all of a sudden they are held to the same standards as a fully grown adult. (McCormick) Therefore society has established 18 the age at which a person is fully responsible for his/her choices and is thus considered an adult. However this creates a double standard within the legal system. A fifteen year old is denied the ability to make the decision as to whether or not cigarettes are something he should buy because he lacks the mental reasoning of an adult but he is of adult mind when firing a gun and killing. (McCrea) Recent brain studies have been performed and determined that juveniles "lack the cognitive and emotional maturity of adults". The study went on to show that when placed in an emotionally charged situation children process the events in the part of the brain responsible for instinct and gut reaction whereas adults process in the more coherent and rational frontal lobe of the brain. (McCormick) The National Research Council panel, released a report titled Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice, which revealed that adolescents think feel and judge differently than adults, often overestimating their grasp on a situation and underestimating the negative consequences of their actions. Despite these studies, they do not detour states from trying young children as adults. Many states now permit the trying of 14 year olds as adults and fifteen states allow this practice to be performed on 13, 12 and even 10 year olds. There are two main reasons that have been the basis of juvenile justice systems. For one, children should not be held responsible for their action in the same way an adult should, and secondly, youths are more open to reform and treatment and thus their guilt is weighed differently than their superiors resulting in rehabilitation to take priority over punishment. (McCormick) The immaturity of these youngsters should be one reason to keep them separated from the adult prisons.

In an attempt to reduce the amount of juvenile crime, authorities figured that increasing the severity of the punishment will divert the adolescents from performing the crime. However this is not the case and instead has resulted in the United States being one of the most severe punishers of young people. The Department of justice reported that 39% of all juveniles in adult prison were convicted for a nonviolent offense. (Smith) A PBS Frontline series titled When Kids Get Life exposed that of the US remains one of the few countries around the world that sentence youths under the age of 18 to life in prison. (McCrea) In Florida, Lionel Tate killed his 6 year old friend while practicing a wrestling move on him. After being tried Tate was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the age of 12 this made Tate the youngest person sentenced to life in prison in modern US history. (McCrea) This could've been prevented had the approved the US approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child which forbids punishing any minor with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (McCormick) In Texas at age 17, Napoleon Beazley murdered John Luttig, was found guilty and was listed to be executed at age 25. Since 1976, Beazley will become the 19th person to be executed for a crime committed as a minor. The execution of minors was constitutionally defended for people of 16 and 23 states currently allow this punishment to be carried out. This means that nearly 80 convicts on death row are waiting to be executed for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 and more than half of all the worlds execution of adolescents have been in the US. (McCormick) The Federal Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Protection Act (JJDPA), enacted three decades ago, was designed to keep youths out of jails however there is a loop-hole in it that does not protect youths prosecuted in the adult justice system. This law should be extended to protect all youths in both juvenile and criminal courts. (Berlatsky)

In fact placing juveniles into adult prisons is actually counterproductive and doesn't offer the adolescents the proper attention they deserve. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Task Force on Community Prevention Services, performed research and discovered that sending children to the adult justice system, including placement of juveniles in adult prison, is "counterproductive for the purpose of reducing violence and enhancing public safety" Other studies that were performed by MacAurthur Foundation of Research network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, revealed that the youths placed in adult correction facilities are significantly more likely to re-offend more quickly and for a more serious offenses. (Berlatsky) Within the wall of adult facilities juveniles do not receive the necessary attention. On average, in a juvenile correction center, there is one staff member for every eight children contrasted to one staff member for every 64 inmates in jail. Jails do not have the capacity or the funds to offer programs and educational services necessary for the proper development of adolescents. (Berlatsky) Most states require mandatory attendance of adolescents to school until a high school diploma of GED has been obtained. Even though legally entitled to an education many convicted juveniles are denied this right due to the fact that the jail cannot offer the programs. The additional staff as well as the access to dayrooms, class rooms and gyms located at juvenile correction facilities allow for these youngsters to participate in pro-social activities and an educational curriculum. (Berlatsky) The placement of juveniles within the adult prisons is a major error in the justice system. Hanna McCrea said "It draws the newest and least privileged members of society into horrific cycles of violence and depression, allowing them little path to rehabilitation, forgiveness and productive lives."

Within the walls of an adult prison the youngest, weakest and least experienced inmates are the one most vulnerable. Center for Policy Alternatives exposed that "Youths held in adult jails are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff and 50% more likely to be assaulted than with a weapon than youth in juvenile facilities." (McCrea) Youths have the highest suicide rate among all prison inmates. Also according to the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2005, despite only one percent of the inmates being children, 21% of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence were under the age of 18. (Berlatsky) Stephan Donaldson of Stop Prison Rape reported that "45,000 boys are sexually assaulted each year in prison. Most people would assume to just separate the adolescents form their elders however this is not a plausible solution. Placing youths in isolation may protect them from the physical and emotional harm of the other inmates but being secluded may result in other problems. In small cells with no natural light and in 23 hour lock down youths placed in isolation are more susceptible to have anxiety and paranoia as well as worsen existing mental disorders and increase their risk of suicide. (Berlatsky)

Adult prison is no place for a child. Adolescents are too young to be placed in the same room with some of America's worst criminals. It is harmful to them both physically and emotionally and ethnically immoral to place them in adult prison. There are special facilities that have been created to treat and rehabilitate these youths who have traveled down the wrong path and America needs to take advantage of these said places. As a society we do not treat children as adults and therefore we should not punish them as adults.