A criminal justice system is a mechanism, utilized by a society to enforce a given standard of conduct in order to protect the members of the community (Colquitt 2002). It consists of apprehending, prosecuting, convicting and sentencing violators of the basic rule of group existence within a society. The purposes of such a system are to remove dangerous members of the community, discourage the rest from criminal behavior, and give society the chance to change violators into law-abiding citizens. The core philosophy of the American criminal justice system is that the government may punish a person who has violated a specific law. A juvenile court, on the other hand, is viewed as a "helping" social agency. Its purpose is to prescribe carefully individualized treatment to young people who are in trouble with society but in a non-adversarial way (Colquitt).
Violators older than 18 years old are tried in regular courts according to the adult justice system. The juvenile court is a fairly new device. A violator or offender who was 7 or older up to the 18th century would have been tried and treated as an adult by the courts (Stolba 2001). The belief at the time was that a person under 7 did not have full moral capacity and capacity to give consent. But beyond 7, he could be considered an adult. Even with the introduction of the juvenile justice system in the late 1800s, adult courts were still used in sentencing the most violent and most defiant violators. The original juvenile court in Chicago moved 37 boys to the adult criminal court in its very first year of operation (Stolba).
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The juvenile justice system was instituted to reform US policies on young offenders
When the juvenile pleads not guilty, the trial becomes a jurisdictional hearing for juveniles (Calderon 2006). It has to be held up to 15 days or 30 days if the child is not in the custody of the court. In the case of adults and despite their right to speedy trial, the proceedings can take very long for a number of factors. These include change of venue, new motion for new evidence and many others. Juvenile courts do not have jurors as in adult courts. Juveniles are not subjected to jury trials but to adjucatory hearing where the judge renders a final decision. Adult proceedings are open to the public but juvenile proceedings are not. The court findings or results are called a disposition in both justice systems. These are a dismissal, a fine, a probation, treatment programs or institutionalization. The juvenile justice aims at rehabilitation and treatment. Thus, the least punitive or restrictive is exacted by many courts on young offenders. Another important difference is the right of adults to a jury trial. A juvenile can have a jury trial if his case is transferred or appealed to a circuit court (Calderon).
In deciding a juvenile case, the probation or parole officer, alternative program directors, the attorneys and the judge come up with the best solution to the problem (Calderon 2006). If an adult case can qualify for a plea bargaining, a juvenile case may also achieve a desired result. An interview with the young or adult offender considers family factors, social involvement, church, education level, job skills, history of criminality, IQ level, psychological factors and other aspects needed to reach a decision. Comparatively with adult cases, some issues can lead to a disposition. It determines if the young offender should be detained in alternative programs, dismissed, proceed to the juvenile court, or transfer him to adult courts through "waivering". The disposition in an adult case determines whether the offender is guilty or innocent of the crime charge. In a juvenile case, the respondent is always found delinquent beyond reasonable doubt. In rare cases when the judges find a young offender too violent or chronic and resistant to treatment, the juvenile court waives its jurisdiction and transfers the offender to the adult criminal court. Some courts automatically exclude young offenders charged with heinous offenses, such as murder, from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court (Calderon).
Many adult cases go through plea bargaining (Calderon 2006). These are more lenient sentencing, admission or positive evidence of guilt and reduced costs in the proceedings. In many juvenile cases, the respondent pleads guilty. In recent years, policymakers went tough on repeat juvenile offenders and introduced some changes on the sentencing structure. Many of them felt that more young people were committing more violent crimes and that the juvenile justice system was ineffective in its role. More young offenders then were waived or transferred to adult courts where they were subjected to "blended sentencing." This means getting adjudicated as a delinquent and getting sentenced as an adult for the same offense. Laws began losing favor for lenient and indeterminate sentencing and punishment and leaning towards determinate disposition. Legislators and policymakers did not find early release effective in rehabilitating young offenders. It was a similar view held for adult criminals. This getting-tough philosophy manifested itself quite severely in applying the death penalty on children as young as 16. There has been a growing sentiment that young criminals threaten the security of society in many ways. Citizens find children committing adult crimes loathsome but neither are the penalties imposed acceptable. This dilemma has led some to propose on the abolition of juvenile criminal courts so that more appropriate punishments for juvenile offenders who commit serious crimes could be devised (Calderon).
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Reforms in recent times have endowed young offenders with more rights (Calderon 2006). These included appointed attorneys and protection from Constitutional rights.
They now also enjoy the rights to due process and to unreasonable searches and seizures more than in the past. State laws vary on the process of interrogation. But the courts have ruled on the overall totality of the circumstances as the determinant of the age for making legal decisions. In some States, parental presence is not a requirement. Complications are also present in both justice systems. The other role-players in the juvenile system are the defense attorney, the prosecutor, the social service worker, the probation officer, the family and the judge himself. The roles they play are similar to those they play in adult cases. The prosecutor and law enforcement officers determine the charges. The judge has the authority to decide what motions to suppress, accepting or rejecting a plea bargain, waiving the juvenile court's jurisdiction to an adult court and acting as the jury on the case. He is the leader who interacts with the other court officers. These players all make significant contributions to the proceedings, during follow-ups and the aftercare period. And alternative sentencing is available in both justice systems (Calderon).
The actual court proceedings in a juvenile court consist of the arrest procedure, search and seizure, and custodial interrogation (Calderon 2006). The concept has been that the delinquent is a child rather than a criminal. Hence, rehabilitation rather than punishment is the court and the system's goal. But the major aspects of the juvenile justice system continue to hound its supporters. One is the cause of serious juvenile crime. Another is that young offenders need to be rehabilitated under a surrogate entity of the parens patriae concept. Another is a recent redefinition of young violent offenders as adults and their transfer to adult courts and the criminal or adult justice system. There has been increasing belief that they pose a serious and genuine threat to the safety of other young people and the community as a whole. An increase in serious juvenile crimes warrants more severe punishment. But moving them to the same place with adult offenders is a critical step, as there has as yet no understanding or agreement on what age sufficient understanding develops. Trying a juvenile offender as an adult offender is a serious decision, which will also seriously affect society and the young offender's future. The vested interests of the other players in the court decision likewise merit consideration. The two justice systems use different legal standards. Children naturally lack the cognitive ability to participate in the adjudicative process. And the choice of whether the young offender should be tried in an adult or juvenile court necessarily determines the outcome of the adjudication. A finding of guilt in an adult court almost always means some punishment. A finding of delinquency in a juvenile court results in rehabilitation and punishment in combination. Rather than eliminating it or reintegrating it into the adult criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system needs an overhaul, more funding, and better initiatives for programs, which will truly incorporate the parents patria concept into the young offender's rehabilitation (Calderon).
Other opinions argue that offenders 12 years old and under should not be moved to adult courts on the basis of their limited adjudicative competence (Steinberg 2001). This does not mean they should not be punished but rather held within a system viewing them as children and not yet as fully mature adults. But the large majority of offenders 16 years old and older are not to different from adults and can sufficiently participate in adjudication within the adult criminal justice system. Offenders between 12 and 16 require individualized assessment of their competence to stand trial. The judges, prosecutors and defense attorney should be allowed to evaluate and judge the offender's maturity and eligibility for transfer to an adult court (Steinberg).
There are also issues of race and ideology to contend with as among the impediments and issues confronting the current juvenile justice system (Hopson and Obidah 2002). Young people of color experience unequal and inequitable treatment within the system. The larger situation suggests that the decisions are tougher on them. The problems they confront go way beyond what has plagued the juvenile court for more than a hundred years. Youth criminality, deviance and discipline for young people of color have compounded the situation. There have been disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Native Americans arrested and handled by juvenile courts. A racial double standard is revealed. These young offenders of color find themselves at a clear disadvantage in their struggle to obtain equal protection under the law and the right to a good attorney. Reforms made to rehabilitate the system have created contradictory effects on juveniles of color. The young Black offender sees race as a significant factor in his or her treatment through the juvenile justice process. African American youth have been over-represented in official reports of youth crime. These reports said that African Americans accounted for only 15% of the American population. Yet they were responsible for approximately 50% of arrests for violent crime. The Sentencing Project Briefing Fact Sheets also said that 75% of juvenile defendants arrested and charged with drug offenses were Black and 95% of juveniles waived to adult prison for drug violations were minorities (Hopson and Obidah).
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The American Bar Association said that approximately 200,000 youths are tried in adult courts every year (Juvenile Justice Digest 2001). The figure had doubled between 1985 and 1997 and was expected to increase as more laws were created for juveniles to be tried as adults. The Association published guidelines for juvenile cases referred to adult courts for use by policymakers and law practitioners. The guidelines were derived from the seven general principles, which included the developmental differences between young and adult offenders and in all the aspects of the criminal justice system (Juvenile Justice Digest).
Within the realm of a justice system is the basic social belief that society is responsible for rearing and raising children into peace-loving and useful adults (Steinberg 2001). Their family, friends, peers, the community, social workers, the justice system and everyone else in society each have a role to play in bringing them up to fit the image (Steinberg). Yet contemporary society, with a newly and recently evolved victim culture, has eagerly embraced therapy and a strong belief in the powers of social engineering (Stolba 2001). It finds the idea of certain individuals, especially children, as deliberately refusing to change as something simply distasteful. Many juvenile offenders are products of very unsettled times and turbulent environments. But it is the State's responsibility to save and reform them (Stolba). In that direction, it must first figure out how to categorize these offenders before it can appropriately deal with them in realizing its mission within the current system of justice.