Treatment of Juveniles in the US Criminal Justice System
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Published: Wed, 15 Aug 2018
The juvenile court system was created specifically to deal with children and was established in Chicago over one hundred years ago. It was developed and it created a separate juvenile justice system nationwide. Today juvenile courts are responsible for dealing with children who are accused of committing two types of offenses: status offenses, which are violations of laws with which only children can be charged (e.g., running away from home); and delinquency offenses, which are acts committed by a child which, if committed by an adult, could result in criminal prosecution.
Prior to the Progressive Era however, child offenders over the age of seven were imprisoned with adults and such actions had been the model historically. The actions of political and social reformers, as well as the research of psychologists in the 18th and 19th centuries, began a shift in society’s views on juvenile delinquents. Early reformers who were interested in rehabilitating rather than punishing children built the New York House of Refuge in 1824. The reformatory housed juveniles who earlier would have been placed in adult jails. Beginning in 1899, individual states took note of the problem of youth incarceration and began establishing similar youth reform homes.
Such early changes to the justice system were made under a new found belief that society had a responsibility to recover the lives of its young offenders before they became immersed in the criminal activity they were taking part in. The juvenile justice system exercised its authority within a “parens patriae” (state as parent or guardian) role. The state assumed the responsibility of parenting the children until they began to demonstrate positive changes, or became adults. At this point youth were no longer tried as adult offenders. Their cases were heard in a somewhat informal court designed for juveniles, often without the assistance of attorneys. Extenuating evidence, outside of the legal facts surrounding the crime or delinquent behavior, was taken into consideration by the judge. Early reform houses were, in many ways, similar to orphanages.
The criminal justice system dates back to oldest known codified law, which is known as the Code of Hammurabi. It was established in 1760 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. Laws have been handed down by many different organizations threw out history. For example, in ancient Rome, laws had to be voted on by a Senate before taking effect. In the modern world, laws are typically created and enforced by governments. Within the realm of codified law, there are generally two forms of law that the courts are concerned with. Civil laws are rules and regulations which govern transactions and grievances between individual citizens. Criminal law is concerned with actions which are dangerous or harmful to society as a whole, in which prosecution is pursued not by an individual but rather by the state. The purpose of criminal law is to provide the specific definition of what constitutes a crime and to prescribe punishments for committing such a crime. No criminal law can be valid unless it includes both of these factors. The subject of criminal justice is, of course, primarily concerned with the enforcement of criminal law.
Although both courts have different objectives we know that the juvenile courts main focus is to rehabilitate and the adult court system acts as a more punitive, retributive court. We will proceed to discuss all things related to the juvenile court. The juvenile court process begins with an allegation that a crime has been committed. Next, an arrest can be made based upon allegations. When a juvenile is arrested, just like everything else, the officer must have more than a mere suspicion, there must be probable cause. In some states, police are required to notify a probation officer or other official designated by the juvenile court: in other states, police are required to notify only the child’s parents. When a juvenile is arrested s/he is taken to the police station or JAC (Juvenile Assessment Center) for initial screening, after that, the officer then makes a decision whether to terminate the case, divert it to an alternative program, or refer it to juvenile court for formal intake. Intake procedures are designed to screen out cases that do not warrant a formal court hearing. Within 24 hours, there will be a detention hearing (petition). Within the following months ahead there will an arraignment (information), case disposition (discovery), and calendar call (status check). Once all the previous steps have been completed, there will be an adjudicatory hearing (court determines if allegations are supported by evidence) then a disposition (sentencing) and possibly an appeal.
Although children have been denied their constitutional protection for the first sixty-seven years of the juvenile court, we are aware that during that time, children were arrested, tried, adjudicated (not convicted), and given a disposition (not a punitive sentence) on the basis of parens patriae. Parens patriae is defined as the power of the state to act on behalf of the child and to provide care and protection equivalent to that of a parent. Throughout the process, the juvenile court system was guided by a rehabilitation philosophy by which the purpose of the court was therapeutic rather than punitive.
However, over time, the use of the parens patriae doctrine without constitutional safeguards led to arbitrary treatment for many juvenile offenders. Nowhere was the absence of due process more evident and more problematic than in two cases that found their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The two cases, Kent v. United States and In re Gault, were characterized by such constitutional flaws that the Supreme Court decided it was finally time to rule on whether juveniles were entitled to due process protections. We will discuss these two very important cases after we discuss the important elements to be considered when going through the court process.
A very important element to be considered is the seriousness of the child’s offence. Undoubtedly lesser offenses may involve informal hearings, adjudication, and probation supervision and is frequently administered at the intake level, without referral to a judge. If a child has been referred on a minor charge, and the intake worker determines that a court intervention is not necessary but feels the child needs to be impressed with the seriousness of his or her actions, the worker may lecture the child and make the warning more impressive. The child may be taken before a judge for a strict reprimand. If it has been decided the child will be submitted to a formal court hearing, a petition is filed. The petition tells exactly what delinquent act was committed and notifies the child of the claims made about his or her misconduct. This petition operates the same way an indictment would for an adult.
The Supreme Court in its final decision claims that “a jury trial is an adult right that is not essential in juvenile proceedings,” and also stated that a jury trial in any case does not ensure competence and fact-finding function of the proceedings. Juveniles do get everything else the Constitution provides, double jeopardy, and even at one point the death penalty. In 1998 there were 73 people on death row who had committed their offenses while under the age of 18. The Court decided it was unconstitutional to execute a juvenile under the age of 16, and the reasoning for that is because 16 years of age is generally recognized as the age separating childhood from adulthood. In most states, this is the age at which minors are legally allowed to take on some adult responsibilities, like driving a car. The need to preserve an orderly society has been a major concern throughout our nation’s history. Ever since there were correctional institutions for juveniles, they have been filled to capacity. The criminal justice system and court systems in general, strive everyday to understand.
The right to due process of the law will always remain a big issue for the juvenile court system. Rights such as: “The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district” Sixth Amendment. “The right of trial by jury shall be preserved” Seventh Amendment. Also, the jury is to be comprised of one’s peers but when a juvenile has a jury trial, the jury is made up of adults, not children. A well known supporter for juveniles getting a fare trial once said: “Neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults only.” In 1971, the issue of whether juveniles had a right to a jury trial was reviewed by the Supreme Court in McKeiver v Pennsylvania. It was argued that if children were subject to the same incarceration as adults, and our Constitutional rights to a jury trial was for everyone also, children should get the same rights as adults. The Court did not agree, but they were aware of the imperfections in the juvenile court system. They also agreed that children should be allowed informal protective proceeding. In the end, the Court agreed that additional adult rights would be entered into the proceedings, but it had to be done with great caution.
The adult court process starts with an allegation that a crime has been committed followed by an arrest based upon the allegation where the adult will be taken to county jail. Within the next 24 hours, the adult will make their first appearance (bail) where the formal charges will be brought forth to them. The adult will then be arraigned (information), have a case disposition (discovery), and a calendar call (status check). Upon the completion of those steps, there will be a trial (state’s burden to prove reason beyond a reasonable doubt) and depending on the outcome there can be an appeal.
In the juvenile court, the terminology referring to the situation that has occurred is known otherwise as an “act of delinquency” and in the adult court the term “crime” is used. Another difference is the way in which the juvenile offenders’ background is taken into consideration. For instance, the juvenile’s academic record and family background are taken into consideration for the case. This is not true in the case of the adult. Adults do not receive this special consideration when they are in front of the judge.
The criminal justice systems for adults and juveniles are different in many significant ways. Their differences vary from state to state. In general, juveniles are not prosecuted for committing crimes, but rather delinquent acts. When the delinquent acts are very serious, they may be considered crimes and the juvenile may be tried in the adult system. Juveniles don’t have a right to a public trial by jury. For a juvenile charged with a crime, the trial portion of the case involves a judge hearing evidence and ruling on whether or not the minor is delinquent. This is called an adjudication hearing. Once the juvenile has been deemed delinquent, the court will determine what action should be taken. This stage differs from the adult system in the purpose of the action. In the adult system, the goal is to punish. In the juvenile system, on the other hand, the goal is to rehabilitate and serve the minor’s best interest. Juvenile courts are often more informal than those for adults. For example, rules about the admissibility of evidence may be more lenient.
Even though the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems have significant differences, there are also many similarities between the two. Most importantly, individuals in both systems retain many of the same rights. These include these rights: (1) The right to an attorney, (2) The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, (3) The privilege against self-incrimination, (4) The right to notice of the charges, and (5) The prosecution must provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt before a person can be convicted.
The juvenile courts tend to focus on the individualized rehabilitation of the offender. The adult courts tend to focus on the “expression of the community’s disapproval for the illegal behavior with an appropriate amount of punishment for every conviction.” It is interesting that when offenders are in the adult courts that we no longer take into consideration their backgrounds or special circumstances. It seems that as a society, we tend to try and protect our children regardless of their actions. Adults are treated in a much different fashion since there is a level of understanding that we expect.
The juvenile court has many steps that the adult courts do not have. The juvenile courts begin with the term of delinquent, and the act is referred to as a delinquent act. In the case of the adult, the person is known as a criminal who committed a crime. It would seem that there is severe labeling from the beginning of the case. To clarify the term labeling, it can be described as a common occurrence in our lives. When children are referred to as delinquents or adults are called criminals for their actions, this is an example of labeling.
The idea of the juvenile justice system rests on the fact that children are developmentally different from adults and thus are more prone to reach to treatment and rehabilitation. The juvenile justice process centers on the individual child and takes into account the child’s problems and needs, focusing less on punishment and more on helping the child to change and so minimize the likelihood of future criminal behavior. During the past ten years there has been a fear of juvenile crime and even more recently we have seen a much bigger spike within juveniles for more heinous crimes. Such cases as the burning of the 15 year old boy in Broward County, the rape of a Bay Area California teen during a school dance while more than 20 witnesses watched the gang rape and cases near home such as the fatal stabbing of a Coral Gables high school student. Cases such as these provide for the idea that state legislatures and the federal government will increasingly turn to the more punitive adult model, requiring that even pre-teen children in some instances be treated as if they were equal in culpability and understanding to adults who commit similar crimes.
Although there may be in fact a pendulum swing with the juvenile justice system the underlying rationales of the juvenile court system are that youth are developmentally different from adults and that their behavior is accepting. Rehabilitation and treatment, in addition to community protection, are considered to be primary and feasible goals. Limitations are placed on public access to juvenile records because of the belief that juvenile offenders can be successfully rehabilitated, and in order to avoid their unnecessary stigmatization most files are only disclosed to government agencies when necessary. Court proceedings may be confidential to protect the privacy of the juvenile.
The juvenile justice system follows a psychological casework approach, taking into account a detailed assessment of the youth’s history in order to meet his or her specific needs. The juvenile offender faces a hearing, rather than a trial, which incorporates his social history as well as legal factors. Law enforcement has the option of preventative detention, which is detaining a youth for his own protection or the community’s protection. Not all states afford juveniles the right to a jury trial. A juvenile offender is judged “delinquent” rather than “guilty.” Because of the individualized nature of the juvenile justice system, sentencing varies and may cover a wide range of community-based and residential options. The disposition is based on the individual’s offense history and the severity of the offense, and includes a significant rehabilitation component. The disposition can be for an unspecified period of time; the court can send a youth to a certain facility or program until it is determined he or she is rehabilitated, or until h/she reaches the age of majority. The disposition may also include a restitution component and can be directed at people other than the offender, for example his parents. Parole combines surveillance with activities to reintegrate the juvenile into the community.
On the contrary, in the criminal justice system rehabilitation is not a primary goal. The goal of the criminal justice system is to operate under sanctions and be proportional to the offense. In the criminal justice system deterrence is seen as a successful outcome of punishment. Unlike in the juvenile court system, all criminal records have open public access and all court proceedings are open to the public. Defendants in the criminal justice system are put on trial and this is based on the gathering of information and legal facts. Defendants have the right to apply for bond or bail; however, this is never guaranteed and only the judge can grant this. Defendants are entitled to a jury trial which is a constitutional right. If a defendant is found “innocent” or “guilty”, depending on the verdict they may be incarcerated and sentenced to a specified period of time which is determined by the severity of the offense. Parole is primarily based on surveillance and monitoring of illicit behavior.
Often times whenever a very severe crime is committed by a juvenile; such as a murder or gang related acts, they are tried as adults. “Beginning about 35 years ago, increases in violent juvenile crime permitted judges to transfer juveniles to adult criminal courts. No national data exist on the number of juvenile offenders prosecuted as adults.” Juvenile court is a special court or department of a trial court which deals with under-age defendants charged with crimes or who are neglected or out of the control of their parents. The normal age of these defendants is under 18, but juvenile court does not have jurisdiction in cases in which minors are charged as adults. The procedure in juvenile court is not always adversarial, although the minor is entitled to legal representation by a lawyer. Parents or social workers and probation officers may be involved in the process to achieve positive results and save the minor from involvement in future crimes. However, serious crimes and repeated offenses can result in sentencing juvenile offenders to prison, with transfer to state prison upon reaching adulthood with limited maximum sentences, often up until the age of 21. Where parental neglect or loss of control is a problem, the juvenile court may seek out foster homes for the juvenile, treating the child as a ward of the court. The Juvenile Court handles case of delinquency and dependency. Delinquency refers to crimes committed by minors, and dependency includes cases where a non-parental person is chosen to care for a minor.
Now that we have a better understanding of the juvenile court process and procedures, we will review two very important cases dealing with juveniles and their due process laws. The Kent case concerned the transfer of a juvenile from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to the adult criminal justice system. The juvenile justice system recognized that certain forms of criminal conduct require that children be tried as adults in the adult criminal justice rather than the juvenile system. Thus, most jurisdictions had statues by which certain juveniles would be removed from the juvenile justice system. There were two basic methods: (1) Some states used a “waiver” or “transfer” hearing; and (2) some states excluded certain offenses from the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.
Because of the nature and effect of the waiver decision on the child in terms of status and disposition, the U.S. Supreme Court used the Kent case to consider procedural protections for juveniles in the waiver process. The Supreme Court ruled that the waiver proceeding was a “critically important” stage in the juvenile process and that juveniles must be afforded minimum requirements of due process of law at such proceedings.
As stated by Larry J. Siegel and Paul E. Tracy in the book Juvenile Law, the In re Gault case concerned the process by which juvenile courts should give a punitive disposition for a juvenile and expose the child to a possibly long period of incarceration for a relatively minor offense. The Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required that certain procedural guarantees were essential to the adjudication of delinquency cases. It then specified the nature of due process by indicating that juveniles who have violated a criminal statue and who may be committed to an institution in which their freedom may be curtailed are entitled to: (1) fair notice of charges against them; (2) right to representation by counsel; (3) right to confrontation and cross-examination; and (4) the privilege against self-incrimination. The Gault decision, and particularly the constitutional right of a juvenile to the assistance of counsel, completely altered the juvenile justice system.
Juveniles in adult prisons face an array of problems because the criminal justice system was not created to rehabilitate, therefore these juveniles are being exposed to harden criminals and are being victimized on a daily basis. Children in adult correctional facilities suffer higher rates of physical and sexual abuse and suicide. Compared to those held in juvenile detention centers, study show that youth held in adult jails are: (1) 7.7 times more likely to commit suicide, (2) 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted, (3) twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and (4) 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon. Children in adult facilities, particularly in jails, frequently do not receive the education or other services appropriate to their needs. In many states juveniles are treated the same as adults and are provided the same health, educational and recreational services. Few adult correctional agencies provide special programming developed for this age group and most states do not provide special staff training on handling juvenile offenders. The situation for girls is particularly troublesome as there are so few of them nationally that there will often be only one female under 18 in a particular prison and therefore little likelihood of special services being provided.
The move to send more children into the adult criminal justice system is a major rethinking of the traditional view that delinquent children need help to turn their lives around and belong in a system that focuses primarily on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Surprisingly, the nationwide transformation to this more punitive approach is taking place despite the continuing decline in juvenile crime. As the number of juvenile cases heard in criminal court increases, more people involved in the system are recognizing that adult courts are inappropriate and unjust settings for children whose developmental immaturity puts them at a disadvantage at every stage in the system. There is increasing evidence of the long-term and damaging consequences suffered by children who are imprisoned in adult prisons and jails. Furthermore, the imposition of adult punishments, far from deterring crime, actually increases the likelihood that a young person will commit further criminal offenses. The transfer of increasing numbers of children from juvenile to criminal courts is continuing in the face of mounting evidence of the harm it does both to the children and to public safety – once again “tough on crime” politics undermines good public policy.
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Siegel, Larry J and Tracy, Paul E. (2008). Juvenile Law: A collection of Leading US Supreme Court Cases. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc. P 9-52
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